Nearly 20 years ago, when Haifaa Al-Mansour left Saudi Arabia to study at the American University in Cairo, her friends were horrified. She would be an outcast, they warned her; she would never be married.
Today, the Bahrain-based filmmaker has a husband, two children, a Master’s degree and a career as the first female director to emerge from Saudi Arabia – a country where cinemas are largely banned. Her film Wadjda is the first full-length feature to be filmed entirely in the Arab state, and was named Best Film in the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival.
Wadjda centres on a feisty ten-year-old girl in Riyadh who desperately wants a bicycle despite a traditional Saudi belief that bicycles are dangerous to young girls’ virtue. Ironically, to raise money for the bike, Wadjda enters a Koran-reciting competition. It’s an eye-opening portrayal of everyday repression in the Arab state, but one with a great deal of optimism.
Al-Mansour says she wanted to make a film that “showed women as victims, as much as they are victorious.” Her approach was to select a subject that “was not intimidating, but something soft and accepted” – something like a bicycle.
The filmmaker chose to study film after she returned to Saudi Arabia and struggled to find her voice in a society where women are, for all intents and purposes, invisible. She began making short films as a sort of “therapy”, and went on to earn her Master’s degree in directing and film studies at the University of Sydney.
She admits that she struggles to balance advocating women’s advancement with respect for her heritage. “I try to maintain my voice, which is for modernity and freedom and tolerance,” she says. “[But] change has to be slow. It has to be rooted to become real.”
Even though she was obliged to direct Wadjda’s exterior scenes via walkie-talkie from the back of a van – public interaction between men and women is forbidden in Saudi Arabia – Al-Mansour says that women’s rights are improving there. New government-funded scholarships are allowing more women to study abroad, and there are ever-increasing employment opportunities.
“I feel so good that there is a very conservative wave going all across the Arab world, but not in Saudi,” says Al-Mansour. “Saudi is going the other direction.”
Wadjda screens from Thu Sep 19.