Much has been written in the West about the lives of Saudi women, although we rarely hear directly from them. We see little of their daily lives, the social restrictions they face or how they themselves view the possibility of change. Haifaa Al Mansour’s debut feature, Wadja, looks set to change all this. This charming first film charts the story of a Saudi teenage girl’s longing to ride a bicycle. A simple desire in any western country but one forbidden to girls living in Saudi Arabia. Al Mansour’s film, uses this simple device as a metaphor through which she can comment on the lives of women living in the Kingdom today; through Wadja’s adolescent eyes we see a younger generation’s desire for change.

The film opens with the teenager on her way to a single sex girl’s school arguing with her younger neighbour, Abdullah, a boy who clearly likes her but also likes to tease her, frequently about his cycling prowess. He rides his bike passed her and playfully pulls off her headscarf. She tells him that one day she will beat him in a cycling race. Something Abdullah laughs at, since the idea of a girl riding a bike is, in his eyes, absurd, as he tells Wadja before riding off laughing.

Wadja arrives at school, where she is reprimanded for failing to wear her headscarf. Through her eyes we see the restrictions on the young girls’ lives. During a school break, a group of friends play in the small school court- yard but they are told to come inside because a group of builders working across the road can clearly see them.

The school itself appears to be a claustrophobic, suffocating environment, which is run by a stern headmistress. She tells her young charges that even their voices should not be heard by men in the outside world.

It is clear from the outset that the world Wadja inhabits is one into which she does not easily fit. We see her rebellious streak in the way she breaks her school dress code when, instead of wearing the prescribed black shoes, she dyes her trainers black.

Wadja’s home life is equally fraught. Her kindly, schoolteacher mother is desperately trying to keep her marriage to Wadja’s father together. But since she has given birth to a daughter and not a son and can now no longer have any future children, her husband’s mother is busy looking for a new bride, something her husband does not appear to want.

What is fascinating about this touching first feature, is that although the director clearly shows how suffocating some social restrictions are for women, she also illustrates how, in many cases, it is some women themselves who keep the restrictions in place, simply out of their fear of change. Wadja’s mother, fears she might lose her job has a teacher, because her driver is demanding ever more money to take her to work, since women are prohibited from driving. She decides on a friend’s recommendation to look for work at the local hospital, which is within walking distance of her home. However, on arriving at the hospital she subsequently leaves, without even fill-ing in a job application form, because she is shocked to see her friend, who works there, innocently chatting to a male colleague.

Wadja’s mother is no religious conservative and in many ways encourages her daughter’s free spirit but even for her the prospect of change is a difficult one to accept. The director in a recent interview states “change is a painful process … it has to come from the heart and people must be allowed to embrace it at their own pace”.

Mansour’s perceptive script does not point the finger of blame at any one section of society, not Saudi men, nor the religious community, nor even the older generation of women who having accepted these restrictions for themselves are keen that the younger generation also learn to tow the line.

On the contrary, she shows great sympathy for all her characters even the rather stern school mistress who the film suggests might herself be a victim of conservative attitudes, when her students discuss rumours that she may be involved in a clandestine love affair. The director’s American husband has noted how “over the years the script changed, becoming a lot less angry and a lot more compassionate towards everyone, including the women who, in some cases, help to keep the system going.”

Al Mansour’s own life in some ways mirrors that of her protagonist Wadja but the director was fortunate to have been born into an ultra liberal Saudi family where traditional roles were to a certain extent reversed.

Labelled “the secular family” by their neighbours, Mansour’s mother is a prominent Saudi business woman, while her father, an acclaimed poet, actually encouraged his daughters more then his sons and even paid for Haifaa to attend a university in the United States.

On her return to Saudi Arabia Mansour started work for a Saudi oil company but quickly became frustrated with what she saw as the chauvinistic attitudes of her male colleagues who, she felt, failed to take her seriously.

She decided to turn to film to express her frustrations and after making several acclaimed short films and a documentary, began to work on the script for Wadja.

She attended the prestigous Sundance Institute Film Lab, a key development programme for independent film-makers. Her husband recalls: “There was a lot of interest in the film from the very beginning but investors would get nervous and then back away.” Eventually, it was a member of the Saudi Royal family who eventually came on board and their participation made Wadja possible.

However, Mansour’s problems did not stop with funding for the feature. After that, casting proved to be a problem since most Saudi actresses would only agree to participate if their faces remained veiled, a condition the director could not agree to.

She also had the daunting task of finding the teenage actress who would play the film’s title role, but when Waad Mohammed walked into an audition wearing trainers and jeans she knew she had found her heroine. Waad Mohammed gives a charming, beautifully nuanced performance and it is impossible to think of any other young actress who could have done better. When Abdullah, admiring her tenacity, one day spontaneously asks if when he grows up he could marry her, she simply gives a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders and walks away- leaving the viewer with the impression that Wadja has bigger plans for her future.

The film ends with Wadja acquiring her desired bike, not through her own efforts but through her mother. Sadly watching the wedding procession of her now ex- husband, Wadja’s father, with his new bride Wadja’s mother says to her daughter “from now on it’s just you and me and I want you to be the happiest girl in the world.” The closing shot of Wadja riding at speed through the streets of her hometown can be seen as a metaphor for freedom, a freedom which is – at last – within the grasp of her generation and those that will follow.

Beverly Andrews

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