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A Unique Film From Saudi Arabia


In the new film Wadjda, Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, Haifaa Al-Mansour, tells the story of a fun-loving 10-year-old girl in black Converse high tops who longs for a green bicycle to beat her friend, Abudullah, in a race. Bikes are not considered suitable for girls in Saudi Arabia, but Wadjda makes up her mind to earn the money, first by making and selling bracelets, then by entering a Koran contest. The film, showing the relationship between Wadjda and her school, her mother, and her largely absent father, is moving and funny.

Public movie theaters don’t exist in Saudi Arabia, but Al-Mansour watched videos and DVDs at home with her family in the small town where she grew up, and she fell in love with the medium. She filmed Wadjda entirely in her country, the first time a feature film has been shot there. She wanted to give people a glimpse of life in Saudi—where women aren’t allowed to drive, are segregated from men, and must cover themselves. The story of a girl and her quest for a bike seemed like a good way to do it.

“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,” Al-Mansour said. “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. It’s a toy, and 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.”

In spite of her love of movies, Al-Mansour never thought she would make them. But when she came home after studying literature at the American University in Cairo, the conservatism of the country led her to make a short with her brother and sister—about a serial killer who dresses as a woman, completely covering his face. 

“I felt so low, and you want to assert yourself. 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,” Al-Mansour said. “That was how I started. I made films because I wanted to have a voice.”

Directing Wadjda in a place where men and women aren’t allowed to be together in public meant Al-Mansour had to stay in a van, watching a monitor and communicating by walkie-talkie. She said if no one else was around, she might chance getting out of the van to speak directly to the actors and crew about what she wanted. But usually she didn’t push it.

“I didn’t really want to clash with the public,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to provoke in that way. It’s enough I’m making a film about women, and I’m a woman.”

Al-Mansour based Wadjda’s character on her niece.

“She’s amazing,” she said. “She’s a hustler, and she’s always trying to earn money. She has so much life and energy, but my brother is conservative and she conformed a lot. To me that was a great loss for a person who could have achieved a lot. This film is for her and for girls like her.”

For another movie she made, a documentary, Al-Mansour interviewed girls Wadjda’s age. Their determination and strong character gave her hope that things will get better for women. “I feel change is a very long journey, and a lot of people think in the Arab world change will come overnight, and it doesn’t,” she said. “It requires changing hearts and changing values. They might be small changes, but those small changes are the base for changing real fundamental realities.”

Wajdja, which opened in various U.S. locations in September and is still in theaters, has garnered praise from critics and audiences at film festivals, including in Venice, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Tribeca. Saudi Arabia submitted the film for an Academy Award for best foreign film. For Al-Mansour, this reaction has been heartening.

“The thing I’m most proud of is I can say I wrote this film on my sofa back in my home,” she said. “I imagined that film and the film is here, opening in the U.S. and everywhere in the world—it’s surreal.”

Wadjda shows a view of daily life in Saudi Arabia that is usually not accessible to outsiders. At Wadjda’s school, girls are told to go inside so the men working construction nearby won’t see or hear them. Wadjda gets scolded for not covering up properly, and Wadjda’s mother worries about her husband taking a second wife. She can’t make it to work when her driver sleeps late or doesn’t show up—which is often. Her friend urges her to work nearby at the hospital, but she replies that her husband doesn’t want her to work where other men can look at her. Al-Mansour wasn’t trying to judge her country, she says—merely to open a lens.

“I wasn’t trying to show how hard life is in Saudi, although it is hard, of course,” she said. “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—she has this determination and love for life to change things no matter how difficult things are around her.”

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