Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Year: 2012
Rating: 8.0
Country: Saudi Arabia

If one were just to hear what this film is about at a high level, you might shrug and say so what. It is all very ordinary. Wadjda is a 10-year girl from a loving middle-class family. A bit of a rebel, she has spunk and a devious fetching grin and runs into trouble at school from time to time but nothing that we would consider serious. Her mother and father are having issues but they love one another. She has made a friend with a young boy from down the street. She loves pop music and her black sneakers. And she wants a bike and all that it represents and so enters a contest to win the money to buy it. She is Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in one small lovable girl.

Except for one thing. She lives in Saudi Arabia. Where girls are not allowed to ride bikes because then they won't be able to have children. Where pop music is forbidden as a tool of the devil. Where girls cannot touch the Koran when they are having their period. Where she cannot hang out alone with her new friend because women can not be alone with men outside the family. Where the school girls are told not to laugh if men can hear them. Where they have to dress appropriately at all times when outside. Where a wife has to leave the food outside the door when her husband is inside with other male friends. Where the husband decides to take on a second wife because he has no sons.

This is a very gentle film. There are no villains. But it is full of hidden daggers. Subtle and seditious. As an outsider this is a fascinating peek into Saudi life that certainly has a point of view but feels very unfiltered. A peek that we have never really seen before because this 2012 film was the first film ever made in the country. And directed by a female. To us and no doubt many in Saudi Arabia, this paints a picture of female restrictions and rules so tight that it feels like it is choking a gender, but everyone in the film is accepting of this - it is just how things are and there are few objections. Though Wadjda is a free spirit at ten - one can probably assume that at some point she too will enter into this social contract and soon be under the cover of her attire for no one to ever see again outside of her house. It is - again for us from the West - as terrifying as a horror film. The Body Snatchers. At one point in the film one of her classmates announces that she has been married to a 20-year old - this plump little girl that is clueless in the world - it is searing and sad but no one seems to think so. It is just how things are done. School, family and society are constantly reinforcing the message to women - be good, be Godly, be obedient, don't question.

We hear news that things are changing in Saudi Arabia - women can drive and perhaps ride bikes - the first movie theater will be opening next month and women can attend - but don't be fooled. MBS is fluent in public relations when he is not cutting up journalists or torturing dissenters. A couple years ago here in Bangkok where many Gulf Arabs go for holiday - they love the rainy season - there was this young teenage girl that was staying at my condo/hotel and one day she just started chatting to me out of the blue - perfect English - about how happy she was in Bangkok - her parents just let her be free - she ran around in jeans and no one raised an eye. I cannot do this back home she said.

The last moments of Wadjda are exhilarating  - redemptive - powerful - a statement of female desire for something else - a 10-year old girl riding a bike into infinity one might think and a smile plastered on her face that should last forever - but it can't last. Not here. Not now. I like to think of the young woman last month who escaped from Saudi Arabia to Thailand and then finally on to Canada (the new bastion of freedom) and I like to think that will be Wadjda someday.