“Don’t you know that girls don’t ride bikes?”
“Losing to a girl will be a double loss.”
I had every intention of writing a review of Wadjda when it first came out in the cinema last year. I’d had the release date marked in my diary for months. When it opened, I investigated exactly which cinemas it was showing at, and when. I made plans to see it with a friend. I did, in fact, actually see it. I then got felled by one of the worst colds I’ve had in a long time – so bad, in fact, that I took to my bed for the best part of a week. I even lost my appetite. By the time I was recovered enough to string together a half-decent sentence, I’d forgotten what I wanted to say.
I still wanted to write my review, though. I thought I my chance had come when it was shown later in the year as part of the Bicycle Film Festival. I booked tickets for the screening, at the Barbican – and then developed a migraine that very day, so didn’t get to go.
Thankfully, now that it’s out on DVD, my viewing opportunities are somewhat less constrained by the vagaries of ill health. Finally I can write my review. And what better day to post it than International Women’s Day?
Wadjda tells the story of a 10-year old girl and her efforts to get her hands on a bicycle, so she can race against the boy who lives across the road. This would be a fairly unremarkable premise for a film, were it not for the setting – Saudi Arabia, where riding a bike is all but illegal for women, and not exactly encouraged for girls.
This a world in which religion is all encompassing, dictating almost all aspects of life both at home and in public, and affording women few rights – a world in which even young girls are expected to dress and behave modestly.
This a world in which a workman can make lewd comments about a 10-year old girl, but that same girl is expected to cover her face in public. A world in which a girl can be married at 10 to a man twice her age, but not allowed to bring pictures of her wedding to school. A world in which school girls are humiliated in front of their classmates for the slightest transgression. A world in which there is no place for a girl on the family tree – if a man’s wife can’t give him a son, he is expected to remarry.
Entering into this world is Wadjda, the eponymous heroine of the film. Right from the first scene – a shot of the girls’ feet poking out from underneath their floor length school uniform, Wadjda’s baseball shoes contrasting against the conservative footwear of her classmates – she’s marked out as different.
Her efforts to get her hands on her dream bike – a beautiful green model, with painted flowers on the mudguards and streamers on the handlebars – show her to be determined, fearless and enterprising. She doesn’t see why the rules should be different for her simply because she’s a girl; the bike becomes a symbol of everything society says she isn’t allowed to do.
In both its storyline and its production – it’s the first feature film directed by a woman and the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia – Wadjda is groundbreaking. It’s also genuinely a great little film: one that made me smile, melted my heart and left me with hope for the future.
In the on-going struggle for women’s rights around the world, Wadjda is a step in the right direction.