In many ways, the plot of "Wadjda" is one any current or former child can relate to. Wadjda, a spunky 10-year-old girl, wants a bike and will do anything to get it. She will sell bracelets at school. She will charge for favors for her classmates – and will con them into paying her double. She will even sweet-talk the store owner into putting the bike on hold for her, until she can raise money to buy it.
What sets Wadjda's story apart from others is that she lives in Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to even drive a car. A girl riding a bike, though not outright illegal, is extremely taboo. But Wadjda isn't thinking about the social constraints she faces because of her sex and how they will become even more restrictive as she grows up. She just wants a bike, which makes the film playful, fun and funny, even when gently critiquing Saudi culture.
"Wadjda" is also notable in that it is reportedly the first feature length movie filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia (It will also be the country's first Oscar entry). Making it even more remarkable, it was written and directed by a Saudi female filmmaker, Haifaa al-Mansour.
"I wanted to make something about my hometown where I grew up, my life," al-Mansour says.
Al-Mansour started the script for "Wadjda" as a masters student in film, work-shopped it at Sundance, and ultimately filmed it in a suburb of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
"It was very important to me was to not offend people back home . I wanted to maintain my voice. I wanted to make a movie about freedom, about a girl who wants to ride a bicycle," she says. "I know that idea is very controversial back home. It's not like something they'll accept. But in the process of making the film, I wasn't trying to push it even more, or be so loud that when Saudis see it, they don't see themselves in it."
The character of Wadjda was inspired by al-Mansour's niece, and the film uses her quest for a bike as a vehicle to examine women's rights .
"With the Middle East the films coming out are very horrific, very sad. If you want to talk about women's rights, someone is being raped, or killed or stoned," al-Mansour says. "I feel powerless when I see films like that and I feel it increases my sense of that I cannot do things. I felt it was important to make a film about a happy person who will never give up."
Al-Mansour wanted to make the film as a coproduction between Saudi Arabia and a European country. "The Middle East is very closed to film outside the mainstream," she says. "For me it was really important to open untraditional markets for this film."
After five years and "maybe a million" of emails, al-Mansour found a German production company willing to take a chance on her film. Finding Saudi partners however proved even harder.
"They couldn't see the details about what I wanted to say and I didn't want to do a loud film," she says. "It's difficult to pass such a film in Saudi with the censorship and all that. And I wanted to say what I wanted to say about the way things are in there, if you look for them. But it didn't work for the Arabs."
The film gets much of its complexities – and its darkness – from the other characters: Wadjda's mother, who must deal with a horrendous commute just to get to work every day; Wadjda's father, who loves his daughter and wife, but is considering a second marriage because his first hasn't given him a son; Wadjda's teachers, who waver from compassionate to cruel when instilling the "traditional" values their conservative society imposes on its women; and Wadjda's best friend, a boy who loves Wadjda so much he even lets her ride his bike.
"I feel it's not right to say all the women are the good ones and all the men are the bad ones. It is not like that. There are very bad women in Saudi—like everywhere else in the world," al-Mansour says. "And some men are not bad."
For all the simplicity of the plot, "Wadjda" gives a nuanced, subtle and at times, heart-breaking portrait of Saudi Arabian society, where girls can get punished just for painting each other's toe nails. But "Wadjda" gets its buoyancy from the perspective of the titular character.
"It gave me more space to say things. There's curiosity – it is fresh when you tell if from a child's point of view," she says. And while critics are raving about its artistic strengths, framing "Wadjda" from a young girl's perspective had its logistical benefits too.
"As I am older, I have to be in the van because I am not allowed to be in the streets," al-Mansour says. "But the girl can run, can be in the streets. So if I am locked in there, at least she can run and I can film her."
"Wadjda," 97 minutes, opens nationwide on Friday, Sept. 20. It opened in limited release in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 13.