Film Review: 'Wadjda'

Saudi import peddles for freedom

A young girl (Waad Mohammed) in Saudi Arabia longs for a forbidden bicycle in “Wadjda.”

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

A young girl (Waad Mohammed) in Saudi Arabia longs for a forbidden bicycle in “Wadjda.”

It’s hard to imagine that many shoppers long to follow a spree at Hot Topic or Bed Bath & Beyond with a foreign-language film about female identity and oppression in the Arab world. Nevertheless, “Wadjda” opens this weekend in Memphis exclusively at the Wolfchase Galleria Cinema 8.

The booking demonstrates that Malco may have more movies than it knows what to do with (seven new titles arrive Nov. 8). On the other hand, if the bold and charming young girl whose name gives “Wadjda” its title were to be transported by magic to Memphis, the Wolfchase mall is just where she would want to be — a place filled with the fashions and toys denied her because of her gender, religious and social status in her native Saudi Arabia.

Wadjda is a 10-year-old girl living in a suburb of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Although she lives in a conservative world, Wadjda is ...

Rating: PG for thematic elements, brief mild language and smoking

Length: 98 minutes

Released: September 13, 2013 NY/LA

Cast: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Algohani, Ahd Kamel, Mohammed Alkhozain

Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Writer: Haifaa Al-Mansour

More info and showtimes »

Written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, “Wadjda” is the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature by a Saudi female director. Reportedly, al-Mansour had to direct some location scenes from the back of a van, because she could not be seen mixing publicly with the men in the crew. The movie’s 11-year-old heroine suffers similar inconveniences and indignities due to the attitudes of conservative, hypocritical and even leering men. Wadjda (played by Waad Mohammed, a natural charmer) longs to ride a bicycle, even though she’s told: “Don’t you know that girls don’t ride bikes?”

A natural rebel, Wadjda wears high-top sneakers with purple laces while her other classmates wear black buckle shoes and frilly socks. Her school teaches “morality” as well as math and literature. Girls are cautioned not to laugh loudly. “You forget that women’s voices shouldn’t be heard by men outside,” a teacher says near the start of the film, in an early indicator that the movie is going to champion giving women back their voices, so to speak. “A woman’s voice is her nakedness.”

What’s perhaps most striking about “Wadjda” for a Western viewer is not this culture’s alienness but its familiarity (Wadjda plays video games with her father, cranks up the dance music in her room when she wants to drown out her mother’s nagging, and casually references “The Matrix”). Adults and kids will relate to Wadjda’s troubles and will share her joy the first time she gets to ride a bicycle. The bike is an easy symbol of freedom, but it’s effective and apt, and it’s no coincidence that the apparently triuumphant Wadja rides toward what appears to be a crossroads of heavy and dangerous traffic.

In Arabic with English subtitles, “Wadjda” is exclusively at the Wolfchase Galleria Cinema 8.

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