One of the best films of 2012 was Kid With A Bike. This new film from Saudi Arabia could be called Kid Without A Bike. The reason? The heroine is a girl. She's not allowed to ride a bike, just as she's not allowed to do a million other things (raise her voice) because of her gender. Welcome to the world's most feminist state. The film is directed by a woman, and the fact that it was made at all is a triumph. Better still - it's a terrific film.
Wadjda (pronounce it the way it's spelled - if you can) is a 10 year old girl living on the outskirts of Riyadh (capital of Saudi Arabia). She lives with her mother, who works a long way from home, and has to be driven there, because women aren't allowed to drive. Her father is rarely visible. He is pursuing other marital alternatives, since Wadjda's mother is unable to have any more children, and an Arab man has failed as a man if he doesn't produce a son.
Wadjda is at school (girls only of course) where she is constantly in trouble with the headmistress, who demands the highest level of obedience and observance from her girls, neither of which are qualities that Wadjda has. She is a typical girl of her age - stroppy, charming, obsessed with music, friendship and trivia. And she wants a bike. Her best friend and neighbour Abdullah has a bike, and she wants to race him - convinced she will beat him.
But there are two problems. The bike she wants costs 800 riyals which she doesn't have; and girls aren't supposed to ride bikes (some improbable excuse about maintaining her virginity). Neither of which she regards as a problem. She discovers there's a Koran-reciting contest at school, and though she has no interest in the Koran, or aptitude for memorising it, she takes up religious classes, which impresses the headmistress no end.
And that's about the size of it. Obviously you don't want me to tell you how it ends, but the build up is so engaging, partly because of the interest of seeing Saudi Arabia from the inside, but mainly because Waad Mohammed (who plays Wadjda) is such an appealing actress. From the moment we lay eyes on her, we fall for her. She's not especially pretty, nor especially good, but she feels 100% authentic, and you are on her side the whole way through. She has pluck, determination, a sense of humour, and an unwavering will. If she was your daughter, you'd be proud of her, and she would drive you mad.
The film allows you to form your own judgements about a society which treats women in this way. Saudi Arabia is a state that has only existed since 1932, and was founded by Ibn Saud (from whom it gets its name), an ally of Lawrence of Arabia. It is a deeply religious country, if you regard the Wahhabi version of Islam as being deeply religious, whose main priorities are retaining male primacy, by keeping women either indoors, or under black bedsheets when they are outdoors.
What I like about the film is that it doesn't rub your nose in any of this political/religious bigotry. It allows you to draw your own conclusions. And indeed, in many ways Wadjda is a privileged child; her mother loves her, and even her father does - despite her inconvenient gender. Abdullah is as devoted and unoppressive a friend as she could wish for. She is mostly treated with kindness. But she is also treated as a second class citizen. Or should that be third class?
Watch it, enjoy it, and wonder how many women in Saudi Arabia will be able to see it.
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