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Saudi Arabia’s First Female Director Wants ‘Wadjda’ to Speak for Itself

Posted on Sep 25, 2013

Movie theaters are banned in Saudi Arabia, but unlike many of her classmates, Haifaa al-Mansour watched a lot of films on the small screen in the small town there where she grew up. She didn’t plan on becoming a filmmaker herself, but when she came home after studying literature at the American University in Cairo, she felt invisible and wanted to do something to assert herself. So she made a short film about a serial killer who dressed like a woman, covering his face. Al-Mansour went on to film school in Sydney and became Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker. Her new feature, “Wadjda,” is the first movie filmed entirely inside the kingdom, and, after getting a lot of love from critics and audience members at film festivals, including in Tribeca, Toronto and Los Angeles, Saudi Arabia has submitted the movie for an Academy Award—another first.

“Wadjda” tells the story of a fun-loving 10-year-old girl who tries to raise the money to buy a bicycle by entering a Quran contest. Through her title character, Al-Mansour offers a glimpse at the lives of women and girls in Saudi Arabia. Wadjda gets scolded at school for not covering up and for her high topped Converse shoes. She’s told that girls don’t ride bikes when it’s discovered she wants one to beat her friend, a boy, in a race. Wadjda’s mother worries about her husband taking a second wife and depends on an unreliable driver to show up to get to her job. In San Francisco, Al-Mansour talked about feeling invisible as a woman in Saudi Arabia, a bicycle as a nonthreatening symbol of mobility, and directing from inside a van in a segregated country.

Emily Wilson: How did you get interested in movies?

Haifaa Al-Mansour: I grew up in a small town in Saudi and there was a lot of nothing. Absolutely nothing, so I watched a lot of films growing up, and I fell in love with the medium. I never thought I’d be a filmmaker. It never crossed my mind, ever, but after I finished college, I went back to Saudi and started working. The country was very conservative at the time, and women are not promoted enough. I felt so low; you want to assert yourself and you want to move ahead. You feel invisible because of the culture, nothing personal, but that’s how I felt, so I wanted to make a short, just as a hobby to get out of that mode. I made it with the help of my brother and my sister. We sent it to a competition in Abu Dhabi, and it got accepted. That was how I started. When I went there they said we have never seen films coming from Saudi Arabia, so you’re the first female filmmaker. I made films because I wanted to have a voice.

EW: Was that rare to watch movies? Did your friends want them as well?

HA: I grew up when Saudi started to become very conservative with a conservative interpretation of religion, and a lot of the literature was about excluding art from the public space and said that TV was very corrupt and a lot of people started putting TVs out of their home. But my parents are very cool—they’re very middle class, they don’t speak English, and we never traveled to Europe or the U.S., but they never bought into that. We always had access to film. It was frustrating for me because a lot of my classmates would think I was corrupt and evil, and they wanted to save me from that secular environment. Always they preached to me, and they gave me little books about religion. I was frustrated as a kid, but now I’m very grateful for my family, and I’m so excited to see Saudi moving away from those ideologies, and a lot of people enjoy film and music. People are becoming more tolerant, and there is room for art now.

EW: Why did you choose to tell this story about a girl who wants a bicycle?

HA: I wanted to tell a story about where I come from and my hometown and my school. I went to public school all my life. I wanted something to symbolize freedom and freedom of mobility, so the bicycle really fed into that choice, and also it comes with all this cinematic history. I didn’t have any to lean on. When you make a film, you don’t want to exist in a vacuum. There’s “The Bicycle Thief” of course, and other movies, and it had so much weight in cinema. And then it’s a toy, it’s not that intimidating, so it’s good for a country like Saudi, a conservative country reluctant to accept film and women making stories about themselves.

EW: What are you showing about the lives of women through this story?

HA: I wasn’t trying to show how hard life is in Saudi although it is hard, of course. I wasn’t trying to complain about a dark situation as much as show how people can empower themselves and move beyond that situation. That is why it was important for me to build Wadjda as a person who would move ahead—has this determination and love for life to change things no matter how difficult things are around her. And of course I wanted to show how life is in Saudi, but I wasn’t trying to be judgmental as much as open a lens for people and let them feel how it is to be in Saudi. I wasn’t trying to say, “This is bad,” as much as gather situations I faced as a woman in Saudi and put them in the film. And I hope people will see it without me saying anything—just the way the scene is will provoke ideas.

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