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Freedom on Two Wheels 

Breakthrough film Wadjda gives voice to Saudi women

There's something uniquely liberating about riding a bicycle, a fact that is not lost on Wadjda, despite the fact that she has never ridden one. But that doesn't stop the free-spirited Saudi 10-year-old and namesake of the 2012 feature film Wadjda from devising schemes to raise money for the forbidden item.

Whether by selling handmade bracelets, serving as a courier for secret messages or, ultimately, competing in a Quran recitation contest, it seems there's nothing Wadjda won't do to get that bike. Though she is told repeatedly that a bike is not a plaything for girls—women are strongly discouraged from riding for fear it will make them infertile—Wadjda yearns for the day she can pull on her Converse hi-tops and race her friend, a neighbor boy named Abdullah.

Like its main character, Wadjda is quietly revolutionary. Written and directed by Saudi ex-patriot Haifaa al-Mansour, who lives in Bahrain with her American diplomat husband, Wadjda is a rare gem. It has won 16 indie film fest awards and currently has a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

It is also the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia by a female director, which is no easy feat considering that women are not allowed to vote, drive or to walk the streets unaccompanied. Al-Mansour told NPR in an interview that she provided direction via walkie-talkie from inside a van.

"I don't want to provoke people," she said, explaining why she didn't protest the restrictions to make a statement. "I'm making a film in Saudi Arabia—I'm a woman—about a young girl who wants a bicycle. That's enough. I don't have to push it."

She takes the same approach to the film's narrative, letting its characters speak for themselves, addressing the heavy themes of freedom from oppression, religious fanaticism, and even terrorism with a light hand. As a result, Wadjda unfolds slowly and poignantly, laying bare the realities of life in Saudi Arabia and the small but important ways in which women and girls are using their voices to create change.

The power of such acts is clear in a culture where women are to be neither seen nor heard by men who are not family. In an early scene, a group of school girls are chastised by the headmistresses (played with a palpable haughtiness by mononymous actress/filmmaker Ahd) for laughing aloud when men are nearby.

"Your voice is your nakedness," she tells them with smug self-righteousness. Meanwhile, rumors are circulating about the handsome "thief" discovered at the headmistress's home (widely suspected to be her secret lover). It's fitting, then, that the selection from the Quran Wadjda recites during the competition—judged by the headmistress—speaks to the sin of self-deceit.

In many ways, this is the thrust of the film—that the real damage is done by those who claim to be holy in the daylight, while sinning in the dark. By contrast, Wadjda seeks to live an open and authentic life, full of love, joy, and compassion. The result is a story that is as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming; a testament of hope for the future.

dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour

Tin Pan Theater

Showing through Nov. 30

Speaking of Wadjda, Tin Pan Theater


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