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Looking so pretty, riding along?

19 July 2013

Stephen Brown sees a Saudi cycling story

Saudi Arabian family scene: Wadjda (Waad Mohammed, right) and her parents in Wadjda

Saudi Arabian family scene: Wadjda (Waad Mohammed, right) and her parents in Wadjda

HAIFAA AL MANSOUR is Saudi Arabia's first female director. Indeed, before Wadjda (Cert. PG), there has never been a full-length feature film shot entirely inside that country. We sense, through the eponymous ten-year-old heroine (Waad Mohammed), something of the wider community's struggle to accommodate modernity in a Muslim context.

Industrialisation, yes. Likewise the presence of Western guest workers, so long as they respect local customs. But, with this film, people are being asked to discern whether the aspirations of the younger generation (especially its females) are compatible with the kingdom's religious and cultural norms. And which is which, anyway?

It all centres on the bicycle that Wadjda wishes to ride. To do so would cause a scandal in her native Riyadh. As we know from the Olympics, female athletes from that neck of the woods were required by their own sporting authorities to dress in a manner considered appropriate, while women from other Muslim countries did not necessarily have to comply with such restrictions.

Although the Qur'an requires modesty in clothing, it is open to interpretation what this means, and in what circumstances. In microcosm, this is the dilemma facing Wadjda. Does she take note of her highly conservative teacher Ms Hussa (played by Ahd, a New York-based actress), who opposes her pupil's wishes on religious grounds? Wadjda seems instinctively to know that Islam offers alternative readings.

Females in Islam are considered equal but different from males, which leaves her some room for manoeuvre. She has seen how constrained the life of her mother (Reem Abdullah) is. Failure to bear a son threatens to lead the now absent husband to seek another wife. Her mother also fears outside pressures, were she to accede to her daughter's request.

When the driver who is to take her to work doesn't turn up, she feels powerless to get there under her own steam. One cannot see Wadjda, when an adult, allowing herself to be controlled in this way.

At the risk of being seen as a tomboy, she sets about raising money to buy the bike by entering a Qur'an-reciting school competition. The cash prize would fund the purchase. At times, the film wants it both ways. It sets up a scenario that exposes the pettiness of certain culturally derived observances. The film then fails to offer a critique of aspects of a religion that, in having much to commend it, ought, therefore, to be robust enough to enter into dialogue with challenges.

"Subversive" might be a better way of describing Wadjda. The girl continually breaks the mould by an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude, and thus offers hope that change is possible without the destruction of faith. I can see why the ecumenical Interfilm Jury at last year's Venice Film Festival gave its Award for Promoting Interreligious Dialogue to this film.

On release from today.

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