I found this review of the film from the Sydney Film Festival. Some interesting points raised. Guess I'll have to watch the film first, to see if I agree.
Snapshot of modern Saudi Arabia too slight to hit home.
WADJDA REVIEW / RUSSELL EDWARDS
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL(OFFICIAL COMPETITION): It’s a phrase straight out of the ‘Film Festival Director’s Handbook’. Whether you be at Sundance, Rotterdam or Jeonju, whenever you hear about “brave filmmaking” in the pre-screening remarks, it’s time to brace yourself. More so, if the film’s aesthetic qualities go unremarked. And so it went with Nashen Moodley’s introduction of Sydney Film Festival competition entry, Wadjda the first feature film from Saudi Arabia.
The story of Wadjda, a rebellious, pre-pubescent girl in Saudi Arabia, mostly revolves around a child’s desire to ride and own a bike. That might not seem like much, but similar to her mother – and all other women in Saudi Arabia – who is not permitted to drive her own car, a bicycle is forbidden to Wadjda (an appealing performance by natural comedienne, Waad Mohammad). The girl’s desire also has the extra taboo that riding such a two-wheeled device is perceived as a threat to a girl’s virginity.
But the 10-year-old really wants that bike so she can compete against the boy next door and beat him in a race. To make her fantasy a reality, Wadjda resourcefully makes money out of her fellow students selling homemade trinkets and double-dips when she’s employed as a carrier-pigeon for love notes sent by her school friends to their boyfriends (posing as “brothers”), requiring payment from both clients. But the golden opportunity comes when the school announces a Koran recitation contest with enough prize money for the religiously irreverent Wadjda to purchase the bike outright.
The story is slight, but there’s a long tradition – in Iranian cinema for example – of using a child’s predicament metaphorically to critique a social problem. Unfortunately, rather than embrace the simplicity of her premise, writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour burdens it with a representation of almost every obstacle to female self-sufficiency that Saudi Arabian society can muster. A mere sampling of any of the issues, from the sin of painting toenails to remaining veiled in the outside world, would have more than adequately demonstrated the issue of women’s rights in Al Mansour’s homeland. Instead of illustrative embellishment, each ‘issue’ is turned into a subplot that slows rather than speeds the film’s pacing. A movie that clearly had once aimed to educate through light-heartedness, is reduced to a harangue, by labouring its points.
But worse still, Wadjda has a dark side not far from her cutie-pie surface. Besides a winning smile and a resourceful mind, what are Wadjda’s triumphant actions in this film? One, she threatens a man with being an illegal refugee and having his visa checked by authorities. The other moment of decisive victory for Wadjda is that she makes a snide remark to a headmistress who is a religious hypocrite. It’s well established that both the man and the woman in question are jerks, but for all her scamming resourcefulness, audiences have a right to expect something more heroic from a character they’ve been groomed to love. Instead, Wadjda is revealed as a sugar-coated bully and the film for all its cheerfulness – and an endearing actress – betrays a similar small-mindedness to that it wishes to expose.