Wadjda is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. But while director Haifaa al-Mansour's grueling effort to make the film is certainly impressive, Wadjda doesn't rest on the accomplishment of being an international first—the film is excellent by any standard. It would be a great film even if it were the fourth film shot in Saudi Arabia or the hundredth.
What's refreshing about the film is it does not try to tell a moral story. Instead, it follows a young girl named Wadjda through her daily life, resulting in an intimate look at the kind of life that's rarely seen.
Wadjda builds a complex portrait of a place and people around a simple story: a 10-year-old girl, Wadjda, wants a bicycle. However, it's unheard of for girls to ride bicycles in her Riyadh suburb—it's improper, says her teacher, and will lead to infertility, says her mother. Meanwhile, she navigates memorizing the Koran for a school contest, making mixtapes in her bedroom, dealing with her parent's tense marriage, and keeping her headscarf in place while she scampers around her city's dusty streets.
"A woman's voice is her nakedness," notes Wajdja's schoolteacher early on in the film, saying that women's voices shouldn't be heard outside. Thus, much of the film takes place inside, where Wadjda, her mother, and her friends learn, cook, laugh, and sing together in jeans and t-shirts.
Wadjda is not the singularly devout goody two-shoes her strict teachers would prefer—in fact, she gets in trouble for her shoes, which are scuffed up black Converse rip-offs. But neither is she the trailblazing revolutionary a Western filmmaker might have written. She loves her parents, she loves her religion, she loves her pop music; like any pre-teen, she struggles with figuring out how to carve her own identity from amid society's many rules and ideas about who she should be. The film is universal in that way, but it also illustrates the mood and customs of a very specific place. While any young person can connect with the story of a girl figuring out who she wants to be, the stakes for girls in her country are unique: when a teacher believes she sees one girl put her hand up the skirt of another, for example, the two are threatened with expulsion and publicly shamed in front of the entire school.
Wadjda's nuanced identity and the hurdles she and other women in the movie have to jump to through shows the problems with regulating morality through strict laws. For example, after her classmates are publicly shamed for their alleged "sin," the teacher announces the school will avoid future incidents by banning flowers and hand-holding. When the driver of Wadjda's mother's vanpool is a jerk, the brunt of the problem falls on her as she scrambles to find a new ride to work in a country that forbids women from driving.
While the film has no direct moral message, it becomes a clear illustration of how many of the rules Wadjda faces are not about being a moral person, but about control—control of women by men. The main drama in the film revolves around the absurdity of laws that control the independent movement of women: Wadjda has to watch with envy as her male friends bike around the neighborhood streets for fun, while her mother has to rely on an unreliable driver just to get to work. As she learns the Koran by heart, Wadjda also begins to figure out which nonsensical rules she should subvert and which ancient lessons she should aim to follow.
It took director Mansour five years to pull together the funds to film Wadjda and her crew had to always be on the lookout for religious police during the six-month shoot. But Mansour was driven to make the film that she says is based on a niece, whom she described to the New York Times: "She's very feisty, she has a great sense of humor, but my brother is more conservative, and he wanted her to conform," she said. "To me, that's a great loss. It reminds me of a lot of girls in my hometown who had great potential. They could change the world if they were given the chance."