‘Wadjda,’ The First Saudi Arabian Feature, Tries To Sell Itself As A New ‘Bend It Like Beckham’

Wadjda, the story of a little girl trying to win a Koran-memorizing contest so she can get the money to buy a bike and race an irritating neighbor boy with a habit of stealing her headscarf, isn’t just the first movie to be shot in Saudi Arabia by a female director–it’s the first feature-length movie to be entirely shot inside the country. And so it’s going to be interesting to see the full-length film, not simply as a representation of the way Saudi women look at their own experiences, but for a sense of what parts of the country Saudi Arabia is interested in broadcasting to the world at large:

The way the trailer for Wadjda is cut sells it as similar to culture-clash stories like Bend It Like Beckham, in which the talents and ambitions of a young girl come up against her family’s values and the context of her community. Wadjda’s father insults her stepmother for being unable to give him a male heir, and her stepmother jokes about marrying her off, and chastises her for coming home without her headscarf, even though it’s not her fault it was stole by a boy with a bike that made it easy for him to mount a speedy getaway. She gets in trouble at school for chasing her ambitions. But the trailer suggests that Wadjda’s enthusiasm and determination bowl over all comers, from the shopkeeper who she orders not to sell the bicycle she’s picked out as her own to anyone else, to the stepmother who wants Wadjda to chase her own dreams, to even the irritating boy, from whom Wadjda extorts money to finance her dreams of speed.

The question for me, at least, will be how the movie ends. Is Wadjda actually allowed to compete in the contest? Does she get her bike? If she does, is she allowed to ride it on the public streets, given that Saudia Arabia only allows women to ride bicycles and motorcycles in specific recreational areas, fully covered, and accompanied by male relatives? If her victory is limited, are we supposed to cheer it anyway? Or will that leave us with a sickly sense of complicity with the regime’s restrictions on women? Whatever the answers to these questions are, Wadjda looks like it’ll be both charming and an exercise in enjoying the places a new director takes us, while evaluating what it feels like for us, and for her, to go there.