“My name is Haifaa al Mansour and I’m working on a script about a young Saudi girl.” So began the 2007 email plea Saudi director al Mansour sent to as many Western film companies she could find online that did co-productions. The resulting silence didn’t come as much of a surprise: who would take a chance on a first-time director from a country with no history of showing or producing films—and where cinemas are actually illegal? “We don’t have the cinematic heritage of other Arab countries such as Egypt or Morocco,” al Mansour explains. “People invest in films from directors and countries that know how to make them.” Five years would pass before her spirited, sneaker-clad rebel protagonist received a standing ovation in Venice and widespread critical acclaim.
“A bicycle is no flat screen,” says al Mansour but for Wadjda’s titular 11-year-old, living in a strictly controlled, gender-segregated society, “it’s as much a symbol of modernity.” Wadjda’s mother is incredulous when her daughter asks for one. “Have you ever seen a girl ride a bicycle?” she demands. The film follows Wadjda’s quest for two wheels and her need to prove to her friend Abdullah that she can beat him in a race. Ever resourceful, she discovers a sudden interest in the Koran when a recital competition promises the money she needs. The film shows the narrow age-window in the life of a Saudi girl when she can still get away with being cheeky, questioning the world around her and talking to Abdullah on the street before the black abaya robe beckons and, after that, marriage.
“I come from a very liberal family. I’ve never had a ceiling on my dreams,” explains al Mansour. “But also I come from a small town and I went to a government school. A lot of my classmates there had so much potential and wanted to do so many things. But from the age of 15 they were married off and their lives changed completely. This film is for them. Every ideology in society falls on middle-class girls. They have to protect all the values: that women have to stay home; they have to get married; not to work with men.”
In Wadjda (out now in U.S. theaters), the bicycle could have become an all-too-easy metaphor for freedom. The film, after all, is a protest song but it’s one in which character comes first. Al Mansour cites two neorealist works as her influences: the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999) and Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006), both of which register a cruel world through young female eyes. In Wadjda the religious police are mentioned; there’s gossip about a girl caught with a boy who’s not a family member. But mostly al Mansour zones in on small acts of rebellion—Wadjda coloring her sneakers in black so they can pass as school uniform or scribbling her name on her father’s male-only family tree.
The most remarkable thing about al Mansour is that she exists at all—for how, in your formative years, do you become a cinephile and a filmmaker when films on TV “suddenly jump” and when, to go to the cinema, you have to drive to a neighboring country? “The best days of my childhood were when we watched a movie. I could see beyond my geographical boundaries,” she recalls. “Most of the films I saw were American or Bollywood; not intellectual or art house films—those don’t exist in Saudi. They don’t rent them in video stores or show them on TV.”
After working in the oil industry al Mansour decided, at the age of 30, to go to film school in Australia—because, as she says, “I wanted to have my own voice.” There she discovered Italian neorealism and realized “you don’t have to recreate a reality in a studio, you can just shoot in the street.” A number of short films followed, all made and financed by herself (“they were more independent than what is independent”). Then came her controversial documentary short Women Without Shadows (2005).
“I interviewed women of different ages,” she recalls. “There always had to be a male member of the family present but it was amazing what I found. For my mother’s generation, there was little education and the society was poorer but they used to work with men and had more say in the household because they contributed economically. The conservative ideology arose with urbanization and with the country becoming richer. Then my generation came along and they are very afraid of everything. The younger ‘Wadjda’ generation that I spoke to—they were feisty, they feel they belong to a larger world through the internet and they don’t want to do things in the same way. But I also interviewed a religious figure about the practice of face covering and he said that it wasn’t really from Islam but from the culture and that women could be considered veiled if they just covered their hair. In Saudi, women think that it is not allowed for them to show their faces. I contrasted his statements with what the women I interviewed believe and then I screened the film to journalists and everything went crazy. His religious peers were asking, ‘How could he say things like that?’ He then wrote a letter to all the newspapers retracting what he had said. But it made the film famous and it created a debate.”
At the heart of Wadjda is the issue of the female voice. “Women in Saudi are always invisible but they are also silenced,” says al Mansour. The outspoken Wadjda is constantly being told off and warned that people can hear her. However, for the competition scene in which she sings verses from the Koran, al Mansour “wanted her voice to be both beautiful and vulnerable. I wasn’t trying to show religion specifically as oppressive.”
Finding a girl who could both act and sing was a long process. “We come from a culture that is not very close to our feelings,” the director points out. “To open up in front of the camera is quite a big thing. But it was at least easier to cast the young girls. They are not at the age where they have to wear a veil. It was still an issue with the children in the school—we didn’t have access to everyone … Waad’s family are OK with her being in the film but they don’t want her to be an actress when she grows up. Now she’s a little girl she can have some fun. When she’s older she has to take a more respectable occupation—a doctor or a teacher, but not an entertainer.” Of Saudi TV actress Reem Abdullah, who plays Wadjda’s mother, al Mansour says, “it was a very different style of acting to what she’s used to. I wanted something much more subtle. It was important that you could feel what she is thinking even when her face was covered.”
The difficulty of finding a cast and crew and of getting permission to film in Saudi meant the only previous nationally funded feature, Keif al Hal (2006), was shot in neighboring UAE. By contrast, Wadjda spends as much time roaming the dusty roads of Riyadh as it does behind closed doors, highlighting the huge gulf between public and private worlds. For al Mansour it was crucial to shoot in Saudi. The big screen has transported audiences to cities all over the Middle East but, she says, “nobody knows what the streets of Saudi are like.”
“Getting permission as a female director wasn’t that difficult,” she continues. “We had a very good line producer who did a lot of TV before and he treated it like any other TV show and it went through. For the authorities there is no problem but then you have to deal with the public. A lot of people were very welcoming and would stop us and want to appear. But a lot also weren’t—they felt the film was threatening their values. They had never seen a woman with a camera before.” Getting around such restrictions entailed a lot of planning, location scouting, and petitioning for access. “A government school would have never let us shoot there. So we had to find a private one that looked like a government school.” One scene in a mall proved particularly difficult when permission to shoot was refused at the last minute.
“We chose certain times of the day when there was lighter traffic and we tried to choose neighborhoods that were more tolerant,” she explains. “But we still ended up in some conservative places. In Saudi you can’t escape them. The landscape in some of these areas is amazing—for example the end scene, when she rides the bike. I wanted to pan around an urban landscape and end up on an open horizon.” But the only place they could find was a very conservative area, which meant al Mansour had to direct from the back of a van. “I had a monitor, a walkie-talkie, and a telephone,” she says. “We would rehearse the scene before and the DP would block it. Then I would disappear but my voice would stay there, telling Waad to look up. It made me work more closely with the actors so if we were separated they knew what to do.”
The ban on cinemas, in place since the 1980s, means Saudis may miss Wadjda on the big screen (the film lost out on an Oscar nomination as a result) but it was vital for al Mansour that they can see it on DVD or TV. “I tried not to film anything that would be censored but you never really know what they might not like,” she says. “It’s crazy and unpredictable but I hope they won’t cut anything.” She says she tried to make the film as authentic as possible. “I added details—phrases, particular accents, jokes—that Westerners won’t notice but that Saudis will.”
Despite its sense of humor and its irrepressible protagonist, al Mansour’s film laments the sad reality of life for many women, particularly in the story of Wadjda’s mother. While faithful to the girl’s point of view, it details, through snatches of arguments, her mother’s precarious situation: that since she hasn’t given birth to a son, her husband may be matched with another wife. But it is also a film that’s hopeful of the changes that a younger generation could bring.
As far as establishing a film culture in Saudi is concerned, there is still a long way to go. Discussion of film is difficult in private, let alone in public. “Male short and documentary filmmakers come together and discuss their films,” al Mansour explains. “I know them but it’s hard for me to go to their homes and join them. The entertainment business is not considered acceptable for a respectable woman. Acting is still limited. There is not a lot of representation of Saudi women on television but a few from richer families are becoming writers or TV hosts. A new Saudi is coming and the arts will play a role in defining the nation.” Although she has received death threats, al Mansour believes that overall, “people are proud of how the film has been received abroad.”
Over the last year, there have been reports of a group of young Saudi filmmakers organizing clandestine (and so far male-only) screenings, yet al Mansour believes it’s important to lobby for film legally. “I didn’t want to make a film that the rest of the world will see but that Saudi people won’t,” she insists. “I don’t believe in being an outsider and saying whatever you want. It is good to make films as part of a domestic art scene—to help influence things from within.”
Isabel Stevens is the production editor for Sight & Sound, from which this article was reprinted (August 2013). Sight & Sound is a monthly publication of the British Film Institute.
Learn More: Watch the Wadja Movie Trailer.