“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,” begins Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. “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.”
John Horn‘s spoken with the director for the Los Angeles Times: “Owing to strict religious edicts, Mansour occasionally had to direct her actors from inside a van some 100 feet from her set, lest she be seen mingling with men, and she received death threats for an earlier documentary that focused on young women like Wadjda who are willing to buck Islamic tradition…. As written and directed by the 38-year-old Mansour, educated in Cairo and Sydney, Australia, Wadjda is a familiarly disobedient pre-teen. Yet because her rebellion unfolds inside one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes—so strict that cinemas are banned, meaning Wadjda likely will never be screened in its native land—even a small act of defiance looks much larger in context.”
The story, as briefly outlined by Silvia Aloisi for Reuters: “Constantly scolded for not wearing a veil, listening to pop music and not hiding in front of men, Wadjda uses guile to get her own way. When she sees a green bicycle for sale that would allow her to race against a male friend, she concocts a plan to raise the money needed to buy it in spite of her mother’s opposition—respectable girls do not cycle in Saudi Arabia. She ends up learning verses from the Koran by heart to enroll in a religious competition at school, hoping to win the cash prize that would pay for the bike, and in the process pretends to have become the model pious girl her teachers want her to be.”
“Blending ideas and style prompts from the White Balloon school of Iranian filmmaking with Western ‘issue drama’ arthouse input and the occasional hint of Egyptian-style melodrama, this is an affecting but also relatively safe slice of world cinema,” writes Lee Marshall in Screen.
“Once the novelty is processed, critics and the public will likely agree that the pic transcends mere surprise value and delivers a winning, handsomely crafted story with a charismatic lead,” writes Jay Weissberg in Variety.
“Waad Mohammed, a 12-year-old born and raised in Riyadh, is utterly disarming in the title role,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin: “she strikes the perfect balance between cheek and impudence, and her tomboyish grin lights up the screen.The film largely consists of little vignettes in the home and at school, and while many of them are very funny, we get an acute sense of the little everyday frustrations and burdens that Saudi women have to shoulder.”
Wadjda has premiered in Venice in the Orizzonti section dedicated to “new trends in world cinema.”
Update, 9/15: Sony Pictures Classics has acquired North American rights, reports Dave McNary in Variety.
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