Film director of “Wadjda”, Haifaa Al Mansour of Saudi Arabia — AFP Photo
Film director of “Wadjda”, Haifaa Al Mansour of Saudi Arabia — AFP Photo

VENICE: The female director of Saudi Arabia's first feature film, showing at the Venice film festival, has explained how she beat the odds to produce the heartwarming tale of a girl's quest to own a bicycle.

In Haifaa Al Mansour's landmark film “Wadjda,” 10-year-old Waad Mohammed plays a girl who is also testing the boundaries of a woman's place in a highly conservative society where her love for Western music and fashions land her in trouble.

Mohammed's impish personality and resilience in the face of adversity add to the poignancy of the story and left some of the film's first viewers in tears.

“She had this vulnerability and she embodied what a Saudi teenager is,” Al Mansour said, speaking in the lush courtyard of the Excelsior hotel.

“I wanted to show the tension between modernity and tradition,” she said.

Al Mansour said she was forced to direct what is her first feature film from a van with a walkie-talkie in some of the more conservative neighbourhoods where she could not be seen in public together with male crew and cast members.

In some areas, screaming local residents would block shooting altogether.

She said finding financing also posed a problem in a country where cinemas are officially banned and any film is considered a commercial risk.

“Wadjda” will only be available in the kingdom on DVD or on television.

“There is no film in Saudi Arabia. Showing films in public is illegal so we don't have this culture of filmmaking. I was never able to go on a film set and get training and see how things are. It was very difficult,” she said.

Al Mansour grew up in a small Saudi town as one of 12 siblings and she said her parents were always very supportive of her career even though they came under pressure from relatives who said filmmaking was “not honourable”. They are very traditional Saudis but they gave me all the space to be creative and that does not happen to a lot of girls,” she said.

Born in 1974, Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker studied literature at the American University in Cairo and film at the University of Sydney.

She has previously directed three shorts and the award-winning documentary “Women Without Shadows” which explores the hidden lives of Gulf women.

“Wadjda” was co-produced by Germany's Razor Film and several Saudi companies including Rotana Studios which is linked to the Saudi royal family.

The rights have already been sold in France, Germany and Switzerland.

For all the implicit criticism of the state of women's rights in Saudi in the film, Al Mansour said things are gradually changing and having a Saudi prince on board showed that officialdom was supportive of this shift.

“The fact that we shot a flim in Saudi Arabia with permission and everything says a lot about the country. It says the country is embracing art,” she said.

“I think the authorities really want to see more films,” she added.

“It is changing at a very slow pace. It's still a very conservative, tribal society, very religious,” she said, adding: “I think women need to stick together in places like this and fight together and empower each other.”

Skipping along the halls of the Excelsior with headphones firmly on, a smiling curly-haired Mohammed said she was just having the time of her life.

“I'm very excited! This is my first time outside of Saudi Arabia and my first time in a film and I'm the lead actress,” she gushed.

Mohammed, who was selected through scouts as an open casting call for women would not be possible in Saudi, said her nature fit the character.

“The naughtiness is me. It's the real me. I do things I'm not supposed to!”

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Comments (11)

Agha Ata
September 1, 2012 2:00 pm
A little step by a brave girl, a big leap for Muslim women.
September 3, 2012 4:07 am
How a woman should look like and a man should is already decided, we have submitted ourselves to that law, and proud of it. Those who didn't are in very bad shape. Have a look at Hollywood news and you will realize the apparent beauty is horrible in fact. No matter how world behave we will stick with that law She didnt do something which no one could, she just ignored or denied the law
September 1, 2012 6:56 am
is it a good sign or not ?
September 2, 2012 8:21 pm
Excellent reponse Zia. We need men like you to support women.
September 3, 2012 5:04 am
Read Quran and you will know what is the teaching of Islam.
September 3, 2012 12:09 pm
Thanks Ayesha...... May a day come when women do not need support of men just to defend their outlook or act which I found quite decent.... they themselves are responsible and should decide on their own....
September 4, 2012 1:01 pm
Read Quran, hadith, life of Prophet and his companions and you will learn what islam is, and what we are doing now. Dont get fascinated by apparent beauty, it is deception of satan the cursed, once you are into it, the life would be misery The topic of this movie is to glorify evil, and those who support this cause to please someone will be judged with them And, He knows what is in the hearts, and whomsoever gives guidance
Akhter Husain
September 1, 2012 3:29 pm
It is changing at a very slow pace----Let it be like that or else the burst will be unbearable.It is good to know that the inevitable change is coming after all.There is no escape from it.
September 2, 2012 1:15 pm
and this is to be decided by you!! a man......... Is it possible that woman should what should be her appearance??
jamil tunio
September 1, 2012 7:06 am
there should be difference in muslim woman and non muslim woman in appearance
September 2, 2012 10:43 am
'Dawn' could have done better than simply reprint an AFP article. Why does it not publish an interview taken by its own staff or articles on such issues At least it readers can then make up their own mind about the 'true' state of affairs in Middle East countries. At this point all we see is wars being waged on relatively 'progressive' countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Libya (where the society was relatively more liberal) being slowly replaced by 'fundamentalists' and the remaining conservative countries being demonised as 'non-progressive'.
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