A film that reminds us what the movies are about, this child's-eye-view slice of life is a large miracle dressed up as a small one.

The first feature film directed by a Saudi woman, it's also the first made entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country where the manifold restrictions on women include a ban on being seen in public without a male relative: exterior scenes were shot with al-Mansour in the back of a van, directing by walkie-talkie.

It seems hardly surprising, then, that her film is about a pre-teen girl beginning to bump up against the terrible destiny of her gender.

At 10, Wadjda (Mohammed) is the sweetest kind of rebel. Black basketball boots with purple laces peep from beneath her long black abaya, and when the teacher at her strictly religious school - where she is taught that men may not hear her laugh because it reveals her nakedness - tells her to get proper shoes, her response is to ink the white toes with a marker pen.


More problematically, she wants a bicycle so that she can beat her young male buddy, Abdullah (Al Gohani), in a race - an aspiration variously dismissed as irreligious, unladylike and gynaecologically perilous. Undaunted, the youngster pursues all sorts of venal scams to raise the money, including - to the astonishment of her teachers - entering a lucrative competition to memorise and recite passages from the Koran.

Wadjda's quest to break free of social restrictions by internalising the scripture that underpins them lends a piercing irony to the story, which al-Mansour has said has a strong autobiographical thread. And the events unfolding in the adult world add depth, too: Wadjda's beautiful, brittle mother (Abdullah) is riven with anxiety because her husband is courting a second wife; and her scolding headmistress has a secret life.

Al-Mansour takes a humane and compassionate view of all her characters - even the story's few men are depicted as childish and spoilt rather than evil oppressors - that indicates the gentleness of her revolutionary intent. There is no film industry to speak of in Saudi and no cinemas at all so her ideas will percolate slowly into cultural discourse there.

Seen from abroad, her style recalls Vittorio De Sica and, more appositely, that of the 1980s Iranian films The Key and The Jar, which addressed social questions by way of deceptively simple domestic melodramas. Wadjda is one of those, fascinating yet accessible, and driven by one of the more charming child performances seen in a while. If Mohammed, with her "I'm a great catch" T-shirt and winsome smile doesn't steal your heart, you may not have one. Recommended.


Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani


Haifaa al-Mansour


Running Time:

95 mins


PG In Arabic with English subtitles


Much more than the sum of its parts.

- TimeOut