It was only shot last spring and premiered at Telluride and Venice a few months later, but already Haifaa al-Mansour's "Wadjda" is being hailed as a beacon for successful Middle Eastern filmmaking and a role model for other regional films and filmmakers. It dominated the discussion at New Arab Films: A Story Of Success panel at the 9th Dubai International Film Festival, where the film is having its Middle Eastern premiere. That was partly powered by the fact that two of the panel's five participants had links with the film: Roman Paul was one of 'Wadjda''s two German producers (the film is a German-Saudi Arabian co-production), while Eve Gabereau, Managing Director of Soda Pictures, will be distributing al-Mansour's delightful debut in April 2013 in the UK.
Paul explained that when he and his partner at Razor Films, Gerhard Meixner, were first approached by al-Mansour, they took weeks to reply to her e-mail. But as she'd done development work on the script at the Sundance Institute's Screenwriter Lab, they finally agreed to meet her and came on board. According to Paul, it was Razor's suggestion to shoot the film in Saudi Arabia, rather than the alternative and easier option of the U.A.E., because they could anticipate that a narrative feature set and filmed in Saudi Arabia and directed by a woman (a first) would an instant media hook, as it has proved. The fact that al-Mansour has generated an amazing film, about a rebellious Saudi girl who enters a religious recital competition at her pious school so she can win the money to buy a bike, is not just a bonus but looks set to turn "Wadjda" into an international success story.
It's already put al-Monsour on the map as a figurehead for female Arab filmmakers, a position she told me that she's happy to assume while at the same time explaining that she doesn't want to feel it as a pressure about the kind of films she'll be expected to make in future. "But I do feel it's very important for Arab women to see stories like mine – people who break the norm and do things and get recognised for it," al-Mansour said. "Arab societies are very conservative and sometimes vicious when it comes to women. They always try to attack and set limits if women step out of line so it's very important for them to see that you can sometimes step out of line and survive it."
Also on the panel was Rasha Salti, a programmer for African and Middle Eastern cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival and thus a woman who knows how difficult it is for films emanating from the region to gain any sort of traction in North America. Salti admitted she feels extremely anxious every year when she's making her selections because so much is at stake for the chosen few. "I'm actually more anxious when they sell to Sony Pictures Classics than when they don't," said Salti, explaining that she worries about the disappointment buyers will feel when the films perform poorly no matter how positive their festival experiences. Nadine Labaki's "Where Do We Go Now?" and Elia Suleiman's "The Time That Remains" both performed badly at the US box office despite their positive receptions at TIFF.
Salti described Arab cinema as profoundly socially engaged and therefore able to exploit the world of bloggers and social media, an avenue she encourages producers and distributors to exploit more in the future as they attempt to elicit engagement with their films. But there is still a huge stumbling block: "US audiences," she said, "look at Arab cinema already hardened by the images they receive in the media. The cinema itself gets lost."
It remains to be seen how popular 'Wadjda' can be, but the signs are good and hopes high that it will go on to enjoy a very successful international run. "What's working with the audience," argued Paul, "is that we always said we weren't going to make – for lack of a better term – a Third World film. Investors kept saying, 'Do it cheaper.' But we made a film that the audience connects with and forgets where it was shot. It sounds easy, maybe it looks easy now, but it wasn't easy – it was ambitious and difficult."