“Wadjda” is a story about a girl and a bike. Writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour’s own story is, in part, about a woman in a van.
In the film, which opens locally Friday, the title character (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old Saudi girl on the cusp of major changes. It’s nearly time for her to don the abaya, the black, billowing garment Saudi women typically wear that covers everything but the face and hands. Wadjda’s father is about to take a second wife in the hopes of having a son. And her best friend Abdullah is leaving her behind — on his bike. Wadjda wants her own bike so she can race Abdullah and, though it’s legal for her to buy one, a girl riding a bike is culturally taboo. Her efforts to buy the bike are the focus of the film, the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.
As for Al Mansour and the van, that’s just one of the unique situations that cropped up while shooting in Riyadh, where Al Mansour grew up. Since men and women are not supposed to mix on the street, the director called most of the shots from inside a van, watching takes on a monitor while shielded from public eyes.
Still, the location opened up opportunities for Al Mansour, especially when she was guiding her actresses, none of whom had worked with a female director.
Al Mansour is particularly proud of the progression of Reem Abdullah, who plays Wadjda’s mother. The Saudi TV star initially passed on the role.
“TV is big there and there is no film, so for her it was a step down,” Al Mansour says. She eventually got Abdullah to accept the role, which led to a monumental moment for both actress and director.
“She had always worked with male directors, and for me she opened up in a way she could not before,” Al Mansour says. “To be allowed to take her on that journey, that was very special.”
The film shows how Wadjda changes people’s opinions — about girls on bikes and about just girls in general — through quiet perseverance and personal relationships. That’s what effects change, Al Mansour says, particularly in Saudi Arabia’s conservative culture.
“No one will give you change. You have to work for it,” she says. “You have to earn it not by screaming, but by working hard, by believing in yourself, by proving yourself.
“There are windows, but if you are radical, no one will talk to you. And that window will be shut.”