London Film Festival 2012: Wadjda Review

rating: 3.5

Haifaa Al-Mansour deserves some sort of award for not only managing to make a film in a country in which cinemas themselves have been banned for decades, but also one in which women are prohibited from simple(r) tasks like driving, let alone directing feature films. Al Mansour€™s titular character bears the same rebellious spirit; a young Saudi girl who, when we first see her, is donning a pair of Converse All-Stars, and unlike most of her classmates, is clueless when engaged in a sing-along by her head-strong, authoritative teachers. Continuing to flout school procedure, loitering where she shouldn't be and failing to wear her head scarf, Al-Mansour's thoroughly likeable protagonist helps stage a charming coming out party for talented young actress Waad Mohammed, who has to weather the storm of duelling feminist perspectives in a developing country. Tarred with the brush of guilt by her stern educators, who view western music as "evil", and assured by her mother - who may be going through more strife than her daughter is aware of - that riding a bicycle is something only boys should be doing, the question Al-Mansour appears to ask, then, is whether bicycles and nail polish need be firmly inextricable from a path of faith. It's not merely Wadjda's status as a victim of unbearable oppression that makes us warm to her, though; her precociousness, her keenness to cheekily defy the authority of a questionable system (at best) and enjoy childhood as any child should, will likely evoke warm nostalgia and appreciation of adults' own upbringing, and the film might also be a suitable feature to show children in order to reinforce notions of equality and tolerance (if also harness their rebellious side). The finale - a competition between students - is particularly amusing, incisively skewering the dubious nature of religious zealously. In the end, it's a sweet film about family and being true to yourself that'll have you leaving the cinema wearing a grin, even as it concedes the seemingly immovable nature of the country's social constructs. The mere completion of Al-Mansour's film is a towering achievement in itself; that it's also got charm and heart to spare is icing on the cake.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at]