Why You Should See 'Wadjda,' the First Feature Film From Saudi Arabia
I'll often rent a bike to explore a new city. It's a way to combine exercise and sight seeing and brings you in contact with the local biking culture.
But I'll never take my right to go cycling for granted again after watching Wadjda, a film about a ten-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia who enters a Koran memorization contest only because she wants to use the prize money to buy her heart's desire: a bike. "If you ride a bicycle, you won't be able to get married," warns Wadjda's horrified mother, who is convinced her daughter's future rests on her hymen remaining intact. The principle at Wadjda's all-girl school, where singing, nail polish and hand holding are banned, is even more offended by Wadjda's scheme.
Wadjda is touted, even in its trailer, as the first film ever shot inside Saudi Arabia, where women may not drive cars, and where movie theaters are forbidden, yet citizens are free to watch movies in their homes on private screens and on the Internet. First-time female director Haifaa al-Mansoura, a Riyadh native, breaks the taboo of depicting women and girls unveiled, though as she explained to US News and World Report it is in the appropriate context of an all-girls school and family homes where the only men present are relatives. Much of the story is lightheartedly devoted to Wadjda's rebellious but innocent relationship with the neighborhood boy who has a crush on her and teaches her to ride his bike. The film's true subject, though, is how women, men and immigrant laborers must all cope with the tribal and religious rules of Saudi society, and how any young girl's future depends on her spirit—not her hymen—remaining unbroken. The film's release (and submission to the 2014 Oscars as Saudi Arabia's entry in the Foreign Film category) is timely: At the beginning of this year, King Abdullah broke the gender barrier and appointed 30 women to his advisory assembly; and come 2015, women will be allowed to vote—and run—in local elections.
Wadjda opened Sept. 20 across the US. Even If you've traveled to Saudi Arabia, go see it and learn from a story, that, like the bicycle Itself, has universal appeal.
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