Saudi Arabia’s first-ever submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda—which is not only the country’s first film by a female director, but one of the first features ever shot in Saudi Arabia—is a deceptively simple story about a determined 10-year-old girl who dreams of owning a bicycle, and is willing to do just about anything to obtain it.
An energetic, fun-loving, and entrepreneurial girl living in a suburb of the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Wadjda (newcomer Waad Mohammed) constantly pushes against the boundaries of her conservative community, wearing high-top Converse sneakers under the long-robed abaya uniform forced upon her by her strict religious school, and clandestinely listening to underground pop–music stations in her equally strict home. After a fight with her friend Abdullah, Wadjda sees a beautiful green bicycle for sale and becomes determined to buy it in order to beat Abdullah in a race. However, Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah), fearing repercussions from a society that sees bicycles as dangerous to a girl’s virtue, forbids her. Undeterred, Wadjda decides to try and raise the required 800 riyals herself by entering a Qur’an contest at her school that offers a cash prize.
Cinemas have been banned in Saudi Arabia since the 1980s, and it is only recently that this policy has been relaxed (and then only for special holidays). As with such celebrated directors of the Iranian New Wave as Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, who used stories about children to obliquely critique and comment upon their comparably repressive society, Al-Mansour employs Wadjda’s quest to offer a window into women’s lives under an authoritarian regime—and in her high-spirited heroine’s resourcefulness and determination, she shows the irresistible yearning for change that emerges from even the most seemingly hopeless situation. Charming, touching and inspirational, Wadjda is a must-see.