"Wadjda" director Haifaa al-Mansour

by Dan Bloom, producer

If one ever needed a reminder of art’s power, the new film “Wadjda” is just the ticket. Shot completely in Saudi Arabia, filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour had to undertake extraordinary measures to direct the actors. In her homeland, Women are prohibited from open interaction with men in public, so al-Mansour had to convey messages to her crew via walkie-talkie from a nearby van. Though bicycle riding was just made legal for girls in Saudi Arabia, it is still culturally frowned-upon, and it is precisely this childlike symbol of freedom that the film’s main character, a 10 year old girl named Wadjda desires.

The symbolism inherent in this endeavor is rich and evident. Wadjda, played by the effervescent Waad Mohammed, wants a bicycle, a “vehicle,” which represents freedom of movement. “Vehicle” is also a term often used to describe cultural projects, like al-Mansour’s film. To raise the funds for this bicycle, Wadjda enters a koran memorization contest and sells bracelets at school, all under the watchful eye of her stern principal. To enable the acquisition of her “vehicle,” the film, al-Mansour found foreign funding and contorted the normal filming process to toe the Saudi conservative line.Haifaa al-Mansour, director of “Wadjda”

Superficially, “Wadjda” is an enjoyable experience and beautifully shot, and its meaning deepens when you consider the subtle subversion just under the surface. al-Mansour is allowing the world a rare look at the beauty and hardship within Saudi Arabia, and holding up a mirror for Saudis to view their own society. In a film landscape littered with remakes, sensationalism and vapidity, “Wadjda” is a thrilling breath of fresh air. Its powerful message of empowerment for women, girls and humanity is well worth a look.

“Wadjda” official website

Theaters showing “Wadjda”