The first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, “Wadjda” (directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour) takes us through a spunky, young Saudi girl’s attempts to obtain a green bike. You won’t be able to have children if you ride a bike, her mother tells her. Girls don’t ride bikes, her teacher tells her. Girls don’t laugh out loud when there are men around, is something else that her teachers tell her. Wadjda is growing up in a repressive culture, but she is determined to get that green bike. She saves money selling bracelets to her classmates, which must end when a teacher catches her and reprimands her. She buddies up with the shop owner so he’ll put it on hold.
This brings me to The Most Memorable Scene of “Wadjda”: any interaction between Wadjda and the shop owner. This is one of the decent men in Wadjda’s town, especially after she hands him a present and says, “I made you a mixed tape. Now that we’re best friends, you can’t sell my bike to anyone else.” He smiles. He doesn’t sell the bike to anyone, not even the boys who want to buy it. Apparently girls riding bikes isn’t not-allowed as much as it is frowned upon, and this shop owner doesn’t frown upon it. Him and Wadjda strike up an unconventional,sweet, and funny friendship.
In a final effort she joins a Koran competition to come up with the money. The one person on her side is the neighbor boy, who teaches her how to ride his bike and even gives her a helmet as a present. in the face of no’s, no’s, no’s, and more no’s, Wadjda doesn’t listen. She’s a fighter.
The story of the bike is something heartwarming. We root for Wadjda. When she wins by beautifully reciting verses of the Koran, we cheer for her. When she isn’t allowed to keep the prize money (“Wouldn’t you rather donate it to our soldiers?”), we hate this school board that got her hopes up. And when her mother surprises her with the bike at the end of the movie, we feel that joy. Of course, the reason she could afford the green bike for her daughter is because she didn’t by a red dress for herself. That was the dress she was going to wear at a family wedding next month; it was so beautiful that she thought she would ward away any other potential wives for her husband. She wants to be his only, she keeps her hair long for him, and she doesn’t take a better job because of him- because she doesn’t want him to leave for a new family. This is the heartbreaking part of the movie. She never needed to buy the red dress in the end because her husband had his second on wedding weeks before the family wedding. Now it’s just mother (with her new haircut) and daughter.
This storyline adds a dark undercurrent to the rest of the movie. Wadjda gets the bike and a proposal from the cute neighbor boy (“One day I’m going to marry you, Wadjda”), and meanwhile her mother loses a husband and doesn’t know what to expect out of her future. Wadjda’s father seems like a decent man most of the movie, but in the end he makes a choice that is not best for his family. He’s nice when the women in his life are listening to him, but otherwise he is angry. After Wadjda pins her name onto the family tree that is supposed to only have male names, she finds the paper ripped apart on the ground days later. Her father cares about having a son, which is why he went off to have a new family. Wadjda’s mother can’t have children anymore since she already alms died in childbirth once. The scenario is dark.
Maybe the future is bright for the younger generation, though? Wadjda gets her bike and likes a boy who doesn’t mind that she’s not the traditional girl. He gives her a helmet; he even offers to give her his bike after she doesn’t get the prize money. At the end of the film, they ride off in the distance, and she beats him in a race. He doesn’t seem to mind. These two aren’t like Wadjda’s parents. They seem to be leaning into change rather than sticking with tradition. The future may be a little bleak for her mother, but Wadjda may be looking toward something very different in her future.