Girl with a bike: Haifaa Al Mansour's inspiring 'Wadjda' is first feature filmed entirely inside Saudi Arabia
Wadjda is a peek behind the black veils of Saudi Arabian women and girls. If its eponymous and irreverent hero is a surprise, she is also irresistible. Ten-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) listens to rock music, wins videogames against her dad, and dismisses anything that smacks of convention, especially the standards of respectability for Saudi girls. Wadjda desperately wants a bicycle in a country where girls, if they ride them at all, do so in their backyards. Writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour’s debut feature, the first by a Saudi woman, was shot on location in a kingdom where movie theatres have remained shuttered since the mid-1980s.
In Wadjda (opening Sept. 13 via Sony Pictures Classics), we get glimpses of everyday life in a traditional, gender-segregated society, which practices the most austere form of Islam in the Arab world. An absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia is regularly criticized by human-rights organizations, especially with regard to its lack of progress on freedom for women and girls. “The way we did the film was by working inside the system to ensure that we would pass censorship,” Al Mansour explains, during a July telephone interview from Bahrain. (Her husband, an American, is employed there.) “We tried to respect the culture as much as possible so that people would not call the police.” Despite the precautions, when on location in Riyadh, Al Mansour was sometimes obliged to direct from inside a trailer; as a woman, it was inappropriate for her to mix with male members of her Saudi cast and Saudi-German crew.
At the Tribeca Film Festival this spring, Al Mansour represented a contrast to the vast majority of filmmakers and celebrities in attendance. In public, the petite mother of two was a demure presence, soft-spoken, and modestly dressed in Western clothing. She fielded questions after the public screening, explaining her goal of giving voice to Saudi women and girls. In private and on the telephone, she exudes a quiet confidence, not unlike her pint-sized character.
Al Mansour began her professional life as a TV-show host. She switched to making movies after completing her filmmaking degree in Australia, and becoming an Endeavor award winner, the Australian equivalent of a Fulbright. Al Mansour has written and directed four shorts, one a controversial documentary, Women Without Shadows (2005), in which she interviews veiled Islamic women in her mother’s hometown.
The filmmaker, who is under 40, attributes her progressive viewpoints to her parents, especially her father, who once overcame the protestations of a narrow-minded shopkeeper in order to buy his daughter a bicycle. He was a well-known poet, and her mother a social worker. In Saudi Arabia, Al Mansour is an equivocal figure. She received financing for Wadjda from Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family, yet her overt criticism of Saudi life, in this movie and in her shorts, has subjected her to threats. Nevertheless, her hopes for the future of her country remain undiminished. “A lot of Saudi girls are like Wadjda,” Al Mansour observes. “She attends a madrasah in the film, which in Saudi are different from those in Afghanistan, for instance. Girls study math and science and art.” There are religion classes, as well, for which Wadjda shows little enthusiasm. “Saudi girls,” the filmmaker says, “have aspirations.”
Al Mansour’s young protagonist lives with her observant Muslim parents in a middle-class home. Her friend is a boy named Abdullah, who is also conservative. “He is very traditional at the beginning,” the filmmaker explains. “He does not really want to be seen with Wadjda. She’s a girl and he wants her to cover up and all of that.” As the story unfolds, Abdullah comes to accept Wadjda on her own terms. “Abdullah represents an example, another choice, not only for Saudi men but for all Middle Eastern men,” Al Mansour says. “They want to have complete authority and want to be respected in that way. Allowing women freedom is a taking of their manhood. I wanted to show that respect does not come from authority alone.”
Al Mansour’s resolute hero enjoys an affectionate relationship with her mother (Reem Abdullah), who is a teacher, yet as a traditional woman, Mother is appalled at the idea of her daughter wanting a bike. During the course of the film, Wadjda remains undeterred, especially after she catches sight of the bicycle of her dreams. Hearing of a school contest with a cash prize that would allow her buy it, Wadjda signs on; in order to win, she must learn to chant verses from the Quran, an artistic undertaking in Islamic culture. “When Mother and Wadjda are on the roof together, and she is teaching Wadjda to chant, I chose those verses just because they are beautiful, and they are about love and compassion,” the filmmaker explains. “Sometimes, beautiful verses like this get lost because we tend to be militant and aggressive, or we interpret verses in a way that is not loving. I did not want to show the militancy and the violence against others that sometimes is associated with Islam. We need to have a religion that is about love, compassion and acceptance.”
The style of chant we hear in Wadjda is peculiarly Saudi. “I wanted to speak directly to Saudis sometimes,” Al Mansour admits. When Wadjda passes a message to a schoolmate’s boyfriend, the writer-director again addresses her home audience. In a close-up of the young man’s pick-up truck, we see Arabic lettering that says: “I love you so much, my darling,” and “I miss you my love.” “The words are similar to the lyrics of a folk song that only Saudi audiences would understand,” Al Mansour explains.
While distribution deals in other Persian Gulf countries may be forthcoming for Wadjda, there are none at this writing. Some Saudis travel to neighboring Bahrain to see films, a fact satirized in Abdullah Eyaf’s short, Cinema 500 km. Satellite dishes have been banned in the kingdom since 1994, but Saudis continue to buy them, and Al Mansour says Wadjda will eventually get a broadcast deal.
Movies and foreign TV networks are prohibited in Saudi Arabia because they are perceived by the caliphs as threats to traditional values. Working in such an environment and without the benefit of an infrastructure for filmmaking, Al Mansour notes, meant long hours in pre-production just to secure the proper permits. “This film exists,” she says, “because a lot of dedicated people worked very hard to make it.” She points to her German producers, Gerhard Meixner and Roman Paul (Waltz with Bashir), and to the pair of well-known Saudi actresses who agreed to be cast in Wadjda. Reem Abdullah regularly appears on a popular TV show which satirizes Saudi life, and Ahd, who plays Ms. Hussa, the strict headmistress at Wadjda’s school, is an actress and a writer-director whose shorts have been screened at Rotterdam.
As for the talented 11-year-old who showed up in sneakers—not traditional footwear for Saudi girls—to audition for the role of Wadjda, Al Mansour hopes her character and Waad Mohammed herself will be an inspiration to other Saudi girls. Wadjda’s mom, the filmmaker says, is a tribute to Saudi women. From the beginning of the film, Mother confronts the possibility of abandonment. She can no longer bear children, and in a society where women have no legal standing, families must have a male heir. “I love the mother character because she is a woman in love and maybe the loss that she suffers empowers her more,” the filmmaker observes. “That is how it is sometimes. She did not suffer defeat and fall down. She took it with an open heart.”