While much of the pleasure of a festival like NZIFF derives from seeing a bunch of highly-anticipated films, there really is nothing better than discovering an under-hyped gem that would have otherwise slipped under your radar. That film for me this year is Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda, which marks the debut of an exciting new filmmaking talent. The majority of the press surrounding this film has focussed on two interesting facts: this is the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia — where cinema is illegal — as well as the first feature made by a female Saudi director. That the film even exists is an accomplishment, and I went in to Monday’s screening out of curiousity, ready to merely admire a modest achievement. Imagine my surprise, then, to find that this deceptively simple coming-of-age story not only stands on its own merits, but is in fact one of the most charming and subtly provocative films of the year. The Riyadh-set film follows Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a rebellious 11-year-old girl who wears Converse sneakers, listens to “blasphemous” pop music, sells homemade bracelets to classmates, and wants nothing more than a bicycle of her own — stubbornly refusing to accept that this is something girls can’t do. All of this earns her the wrath of the school’s headmistresses (Ahd Kamel), but when a Koran recitation competition is announced, the enterprising Wadjda sees an opportunity solve both of her problems in one fell swoop. Al Mansour skillfully uses this slight, crowd-pleasing story to bring attention to the staggering gender inequality in Saudi Arabia — where women are still not allowed to drive, vote, or be seen with a man who isn’t family (or be seen by men at all, really) — displaying a keen observational eye. Mohammed — also making her debut here — is sensational as the fearless titular character, who is surely one of the most memorable young protagonists we’ve seen in recent years. As her suffering mother, Reem Abdullah is also a standout, and the film’s best scenes are the heartfelt moments shared between the two. For such an undeniably important film — to both Saudi cinema and women’s rights in the Middle East — Wadjda is considerably more fun and rewarding than it has any right to be, and you really don’t want to miss this miraculous work.
Watch the trailer for Wadjda below, and find out when you can catch the film here.