When Haifaa Al Mansour made a short film several years ago with her brother and sister, and it was accepted at a regional film competition in Abu Dhabi, she didn't know she was taking on the title of Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker. In the fall of 2012, she went to the Venice International Film Festival with ‘Wadjda,’ the first feature film to be made by a Saudi woman, and the first to be shot entirely inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The film is a delicate coming-of-age tale about a pre-teen girl, Wadjda, who wants to buy a green bicycle. The fact that girls aren’t supposed to ride bicycles in her culture doesn’t hold her back. Ever the budding entrepreneur, Wadjda schemes plans for raising the 800 riyals for the bike -- including selling self-made bracelets and entering a Koran recital competition with a tantalizing cash prize. Meanwhile, Wadjda’s mother deals with the pressure of her husband considering the possibility of taking a second wife.
A hit on the film festival circuit, "Wadjda" recently scored an Indie Spirit nomination for Best First Feature. Sony Pictures Classics released the film earlier this fall.
Al Mansour discusses her film, her unique title in the international filmmaking community, the reactions she’s received out of her home country, and more below.
Beth Hanna: What about the story of a young Saudi girl who wants a bicycle interested you?
Haifaa Al Mansour: I come from a very small town, I went to public school all my life. So for me, the girl represented a little bit of a part of me. Who I am. And then the bicycle is the concept of modernity -- like the acceleration, being on top of one’s destiny. And still it’s a toy, it’s not very intimidating. For me it’s very important to tell a story that engages people in a dialogue and [also] offends them or clashes with them. It’s cool to marry those concepts, because Saudi Arabia is also a very rich nation. Kids have access to cars and technology, they go online, they travel abroad, and when they come back home they have to abide by the tradition, which is very restrictive. So there is always this tension between modernity and tradition in Saudi Arabia.
There’s a theme in the film of women and girls running the risk of being labeled as outsiders.
[Being an outsider] is the social death. It’s like social punishment. And Saudi Arabia is very tribal. You survive as a part of the collective, you don’t survive as an individual. Once you are outcast, it has so many consequences for you, especially when it comes to a woman. You cannot really survive. You survive physically, but emotionally there are lots of consequences. I think women in the Arab world are all the time under the pressure of not getting out of that, and we should stand up for ourselves. It’s okay to be outcast for a while. You can find other outcasts with you. It’s really important not to give in to this pressure, where you have to conform because people will be vicious, people will start looking at you in a certain way.
And that is why I made this film! For me, I wasn’t trying to complain about the situation in Saudi Arabia. It is hard, it is difficult. It’s one of the most difficult places for women on Earth, it’s true. But I also wanted to inspire girls to believe in themselves, and really have a dream and follow it. It’s very important to give them this example of a girl who wants to move ahead, who is not going to let this society bring her down. I feel it is time to give this message of hope and believing in oneself, and determination, and just moving.
Talk about the casting process. How did you find Waad Mohammed, the young girl who plays the lead?
Adult [TV actors in Saudi Arabia] have already made the decision to be in the entertainment business, so they are taking all the consequences on themselves. But Waad Mohammed was difficult -- convincing her parents to let her be in a film about empowering women and all that. She comes from a very traditional family. She’s not an international school kid, she’s not always been abroad and she doesn’t speak English. But she has the spirit of the [lead part, Wadjda].
Of course we cannot put up an open casting call for a role like that in Saudi Arabia. She came in, but she came in really late in the auditioning process -- seven days. She came in and she was wearing jeans and Chuck Taylors and she was listening to Justin Bieber. She doesn’t understand English, she doesn’t speak English, but she understands Justin Bieber! The Chuck Taylors were in the script before her, they were in the costume design. She had exactly the same kind of spirit [that was called for in the script].
This is the first feature film to be shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia. Was the production tense? Fun? Both?
It was both, but it was mostly very stressful. Very stressful because we had a small budget. Saudi is segregated. So men and women are not supposed to mix in the workplace and public spheres. So I had to be [sometimes directing from inside] a production van, because these are the country rules. And for me, I didn’t want to clash with the country. For me, it’s to tell a story… We went to shoot in a mall and there was a Starbucks, and because we have public money from Germany, we can’t do brands. So the guy who sells balloons at the mall had to come and hold them in front of the Starbucks sign. We laugh now, but it was really scary at some points, because we weren’t on schedule.
There is TV, Saudi has lots of TV dramas and that is how we got our permission to shoot in Saudi. It is not a complete system, but it’s still a functional system. It’s very local and tailored to the local market. But for me it was very important -- another reason that we filmed in Riyadh, I always wanted to film in Riyadh -- to maintain the authenticity of the film, and bring a slice of life. But also because there is infrastructure. There are line producers, they understand that there’s an order and bringing actors and there are some actresses around.