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
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
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
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?
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
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.
There are no movie
theaters in Saudi Arabia, and cinema is banned. What was your exposure to film
while growing up?
Blockbuster is big in Saudi. Video rental! And I am one of
twelve kids. I’m number eight, so you can imagine our house, and I grew up in a
very small town. So my father used to go and rent a lot of videos, just to keep
us calm. We watched a lot of films. I watched Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan — I
don’t know if that was a good idea, because we started trying out martial arts
around the house — and we watched a lot of Bollywood, and a lot of Egyptian
cinema. A lot of Hollywood films. I remember watching “Snow White” was one of the
happiest [memories] in my life.
Nothing like auteur cinema. It was mainstream, but still, I
was in this small town. Just watching took me places. Colorado, I saw
mountains, I saw China, it’s amazing as a kid. So I fell in love with the
medium since I was little.
How did you
eventually become a filmmaker — the first woman filmmaker in Saudi Arabia?
When I finished college, I went back to Saudi. I studied at
the American University in Cairo. So I went back home to find a job, and I
started working at an oil company. And as a young woman, especially in Saudi,
you feel invisible. Nobody hears you. I felt so — not stressed — but very,
very low. It was hard for me to just have a voice of my own. So I started
making films, just as a hobby. A kind of a therapy. And I made a short with my
brother holding the camera, and my sister. I edited it with my friends. And
then I submitted it to a small local competition in Abu Dhabi. And it got
accepted! I was invited with the film. I was like, what? They are paying for my
ticket? So I went there, and they told me, “We haven’t seen films coming from
Saudi Arabia, and certainly we haven’t seen any women [filmmakers] coming from
Saudi Arabia, so you are the first female filmmaker.”
I take the title with a lot of pride. It’s nice to be
breaking boundaries. But for me, it’s the passion of film. It’s not like I’m
trying to make any political statements. Doing something that’s really
satisfying, and telling a story, it’s fun.
What are the
different reactions to you in Saudi Arabia?
It’s a very conservative place. And the people, they don’t
like women to come and be filmmakers and speak for themselves. So a lot of
people are against that. When I started, I had a lot of opposition. People were
so angry. But now I feel like they’re a little bit more relaxed. And I try to
respect the conservatives. Even when I’m writing, I try to write things that
maintain my voice as a filmmaker, but I know that I come from a conservative
place, I know people that are worried. They’re nervous how they will be
portrayed in film, they don’t want to be exposed. And for me it’s not really to
expose, or to clash, as much as tell an intimate story about the culture. So I
think that they respect that, and they’ve calmed a little.
Is there an ongoing
dialogue between women filmmakers in the Middle East?
We have regional festivals where we get together, but I
don’t think the Middle East is very organized in that way. We don’t have an
association for women filmmakers. I think there is all this moral support, when
we see each other, we want each other to do well and we want to push for each
other. But there is nothing official. I’m really happy to be part of an
exciting group of filmmakers — like Cherien Dabis, Nadine Labaki and Annemarie
Jacir. They’re all strong female voices coming from the Middle East, telling
intimate stories about themselves, about what they believe, and it’s amazing
how their films are heard way more than their male counterparts.
How do you feel about
the representation of women in Middle Eastern films?
I try to make an entertaining story. I know films that are
coming from the Middle East, especially about women, and they have to be
horrific. Someone has to be raped and stoned and stuff like that. For me, that
wasn’t what broke me when I lived in Saudi. [It was] everyday life. The everyday
life where you feel you cannot do things. And it has so much power — it’s
trivial, but it builds up and builds up. And it makes your life harder. For me,
it was very important to tell that story. So I hope people see the humor and
see the fun in my film, and get emotionally moved by this little girl’s journey.