“Wadjda” is not only one of the first films to come out of Saudi Arabia, even more significantly it is the first feature written and directed by a Saudi Arabian woman, the talented Haifaa Al Mansour.
Saudi Arabia’s first female director has made her debut at the Venice film festival, exploring the limitations placed on women in the conservative Islamic kingdom through the tale of a strong-willed 10-year-old girl living in Riyadh.
The film “Wadjda”, which the director says is the first to have been entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, follows the everyday life of young Wadjda and her attempts to circumvent restrictions and break social barriers – both at school and at home.
Constantly scolded for not wearing a veil, listening to pop music and not hiding in front of men, she uses guile to get her own way.
When she sees a green bicycle for sale that would allow her to race against a male friend, she concocts a plan to raise the money needed to buy it in spite of her mother’s opposition – respectable girls do not cycle in Saudi Arabia.
Haifaa Al Mansour said her aim was to portray the segregation of women in Saudi Arabia: “The situation for women in Saudi Arabia is very difficult and the country is very conservative and denies women a lot of things… To me, making a film is not like saying ‘ah, it’s really dark, it’s really difficult’. I wanted to make a film to say ‘yeah, it’s difficult and everything, but we need to fight’. That’s it.”
Al Mansour said filming in Riyadh was difficult even though she had permission from authorities to do so:
“We did it within the system, it wasn’t like a guerilla style shooting or anything but still people are very conservative. People don’t like cameras in their neighbourhood. Sometimes we would be shooting and in the middle of the scene someone would come and interrupt and they’d want to take the camera and stuff. Being in Saudi Arabia you don’t go to the streets very often as a woman, you have a driver take you everywhere. So for me the knowledge of the streets was something I learned also during that film because I’m not allowed to be there.”
Twelve-year-old Waad Mohammed, who in the film plays Wadjda, said she found her character very realistic: “I like doing simple things. In fact the character in the film is very similar to me. I like bicycles, I like playing football and things like that. I really enjoyed that.”
Al Mansour said the actress is representative of the new Saudi generation: “She doesn’t speak English, she never had access to anything but she loves Justin Bieber and she knows Selena Gomez and they are part of a bigger world. Saudi, as much as it’s closed, the younger generation is totally different and we hope that they see themselves as part of a bigger world and they will try to open up the country even more.”
Under King Abdullah, the Saudi government has pushed for women to have better education and work opportunities and allowed them to vote in future municipal elections, the only public polls held in the kingdom.
Al Mansour’s film, which is not in the main competition in Venice, may have a limited audience in her own country, where movie theatres are illegal. But producers said they hoped to distribute it on DVDs and TV channels.