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Haifaa Al Mansour, director of WadjdaPhoto: Tobias Kownatz

Wadjda: the Saudi teen movie you need to see

Haifaa Al Mansour chats about female firsts like riding bikes and making films in Saudi Arabia

We're living in a time of young Muslim heroines instigating radical social change: from Facebook Girl of the arab spring movement to Malala Yousafzai, who after being shot in the head by the Taliban, boldly chose to speak out at the UN. Wadjda's activism isn't as extreme, but that doesn't make her any less a heroine in her own right.

Despite the fact that an official film industry doesn't exist in Saudi Arabia, after completing her studies in the West, director Haifaa Al-Mansour was determined to give the female youth of her country a "voice."

Providing an intimate, localized coming-of-age glimpse into a world based on her own childhood, Al-Mansour's protagonist Wadjda prefers to listen to rock pirate radio rather than pore over the Koran like her schoolmates, and is quick to turn love-note courier requests into quick cash.

Her dream? To save up for a bike and be a contender in a race against a boastful boy in the neighborhood--although, until recently, it was illegal for Saudi girls even to ride bikes.

I chatted with Al-Mansour about female self-empowerment, her own heros, and why the Saudi entertainment industry just "doesn't do subtle."

DD: Wadjda is the first feature-length film to come out of Saudi Arabia, ever—why do you think it took so long?

Haifaa Al-Mansour: Basically there’s no money in Saudi films. Saudi has more of a TV-based culture that’s easier to get into because its already running, and quite lucrative.

DD: What inspired you to make the film?

HAM: I wanted to have a voice of my own. I wasn’t trying to be political or anything. That said, after I returned to Saudi after finishing college, I felt like women in my culture were not seen and heard enough. Though I had no experience making films, I just sort of jumped into it. I made a short, sent it to a small competition—and here we are.

DD: How was the audience reaction to your film different in the Arab world versus abroad?

HAM: In my own country there was a lot of pride and a sense of ownership from a film that travelled so much abroad. For sure, there were conservatives who were against it, and women making films. But I always say what I want to without trying to offend or clash with them—I do think there’s a little bit of space for that. In the arab world in general, people didn’t believe in our project. When we were trying to find financers, it was difficult to sell a story about a young Saudi girl’s everyday life. It wasn’t ”dramatically appealing” enough: subtle doesn’t sell much in the Middle East. 

DD: Did you fear a conservative backlash in your own country?

HAM: I wasn’t afraid of someone trying to kill me, because I try not to do anything that will provoke people to that extent. I push them a little here and there, but I do it gently, within the boundaries. There is a long list of things you shouldn’t do in the media, and I followed it.

DD: What was the most challenging aspect of shooting the film?

HAM:Because of gender segregation, I wasn’t able to be outside when we were shooting in the streets. Access to locations was often difficult. In general, we were starting from nothing. There is no film heritage or tradition here like in Europe. Everything was done for the first time.

DD: Do you consider Wadjda an accurate portrayal of how most young girls grow up in Saudi Arabia today?

HAM: Oh, definitely. I based a lot of it on a very cute and cheerful girl I went to public school with, and my own childhood. Things aren’t that different now, except that kids have huge access to information on the internet, video games, and cable television. In my time we only had a few channels, and videos my father sometimes rented from Blockbuster. 

DD: Speaking of video games, I thought it was interesting how Wadjda buys one to to help her memorise the Koran. Is that something a lot of Saudi kids do these days?

HAM: Yeah, at a very early age. Its part of our culture.

DD:At almost every turn, Wadjda faces oppression of some kind. Do you see her as a heroine or victim?

HAM: Of coure she’s a heroine. Saudi is a tough place. Its about survivors, people trying to make it, but who see themselves as victorious. Its important not to emphasize their helplessness.

DD: But how likely is it that Wadjda ends up like her classmate, married off to a much older man, or abandoned like her mother, if she can’t bear a son?

HAM: I see what you’re saying, but I think Wadjda would have a totally different life. For one thing, she has her mother’s support. Though her mother was originally determined to be traditional, at the end of the film she recognises that there’s more dignity in being true to one’s self. It will not be an easy life for Wadjda, and victories can be taken away; in the last scene, there’s a sense of danger. But that doesn’t mean she gives up. 

DD: In the film, two older girls in Wadjda’s school turn into social pariahs when suspected of being lesbians. Is lesbianism illegal in Saudi Arabia?

HAM: I don’t know if its illegal, but of course, lesbians are not allowed. Saudi is very conservative: reputation and image are everything. So if you want to put someone down that is the way to go, to ruin them. Once your reputation is ruined, you become an outcast. Saudi is such a tribal, collective place that you cannot survive as an individual

DD: Is education key to women empowering themselves?

HAM: Absolutely. Believing in oneself comes from having education. And access to the world—for so long Saudi women were not allowed to study abroad, and now they can. It gives them a greater world view.

DD: Do young women have a crucial role to play in instigating social change in the arab world—as exemplified by Malala Yousafzai speaking out against the Taliban at the UN, FEMEN, etc?

HAM: Yes, its very important that women are able to bring in their own distinct voice and stand up for what they believe in. But it doesn’t come from being violent, but assertive—that’s important. 

DD: Who are your heroes?

HAM: My hero is my mother, who is an amazing character. She taught me so much, without actually teaching me. Although she came from a small town, surrounded by conservative relatives, she never wore a full veil and conformed. 

Haifaa Al Mansour's directorial debut Wadjda is now playing in the UK.