Wadjda: Venice Review

The first feature ever shot in Saudi Arabia is a winner directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour.

Haifaa Al Mansour's film, set in Saudi Arabia, tells the tale about a 12-year-old tomboy and rebellious free spirit who wants to buy a bike.

A real discovery from the Middle East and a film that will be one of the most-seen Arab-language films of the year, Wadjda has the distinction of being the first feature film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. And perhaps even more significantly, it is the first feature written and directed by a Saudi Arabian woman, the talented Haifaa Al Mansour.

Her tale about a 12-year-old tomboy who wants to buy a bike would be a small jewel of tone and story-telling in any country, but its Riyadh setting and unapologetic feminist intent is the main attraction, throwing open closed doors on women’s lives.

Bowing in Venice Horizons, it has the appeal to cross over to international theatrical in controlled situations, and is bound to start a fresh dialogue with the Mideast at film festivals in the wake of the Arab Spring. Backed by the Jordanian Royal Film Commission, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the Dubai Film Market’s Enjaaz, Sundance Institute and a host of other prestigious bodies, the film presents the very best face of a Middle East interested in change and an equitable future for women.

REVIEW: Bad 25

Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a rebellious free spirit who lives with her glamorous mom (Saudi Arabian TV star Reem Abdullah) in a luxurious home. Daddy (Sultan Al Assaf) is a handsome guy who turns up very occasionally. Though he obviously adores his wife and daughter, he and his family (never seen, though they live across the street) want a son his wife cannot have. The undercurrent to the story is whether he will take a second wife, emotionally abandoning them.

Much of the action takes place in Wadjda’s all-girl school, run by a scowling wicked witch, Ms. Hussa (Ahd), who singles the girl out as a troublemaker. By filming inside the school, Al Mansour throw open a curtain on a previously closed world not that different, in the end, from certain religious schools in the West that some viewers may have attended. There is the same obsession with sex on the part of the teachers, who are no angels themselves, and the same attempt to regiment happy young children into narrow social roles. If they succeed on the whole, there are always special cases like Wadjda who slip through the tight net, giving the story a decidedly upbeat ending.

Among the surprises is Wadjda’s sudden "conversion” to religion and her attempt to win the school’s annual Qu’ran contest so she can buy the bike she covets. This part of the plot culminates in one of the most beautiful recital of Qu’ranic verses on film. Another delightful subplot is her tomboyish friendship with the little boy next door (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), whose deep-seated admiration for her spunk is a most encouraging sign.

The three excellent main actresses are subtly directed, yet leave an indelible impression of the different paths women’s lives can take. Producers Gerhard Meixner and Roman Paul’s distinguished Razor Film (Waltz with Bashir, Paradise Now) adds another feather to its cap with fine production values from a top-flight German tech team, who allow the empty, wide-open spaces of the city to speak for themselves.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Aug. 30, 2012

Production companies: Razor Film in association with High Look Group, Rotana Studios

Cast: Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Ahd, Sultan Al Assaf

Director-screenwriter: Haifaa Al Mansour

Producers: Gerhard Meixner, Roman Paul

Director of photography: Lutz Reitemeier

Production designer: Thomas Molt

Editor: Andreas Wodraschke

Music: Max Richter

Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 97 minutes.