'Wadjda': Saudi Arabia's First Feature Film and Female Filmmaker

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Our next segment starts with a seemingly simple story – a young girl falls in love with an expensive green bicycle. She dreams of buying that bike and racing a boy in her neighborhood.

[Clip plays]

Schachter: Except that little girl is named Wadjda and she lives in Saudi Arabia where girls are not supposed to ride bicycles. Wadjda is the title character of a new film, the first feature-length film to be shot in Saudia Arabia and the first there directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour. Wadjda has been shown at film festivals around the globe and it's been selected by Saudi Arabia as its official entry for "Best Foreign Film" at The Oscars. Haifaa Al Mansour says she made the movie to reflect her life as a Saudi woman.

Haifaa Al Mansour: I grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia and I wanted to open that world that I think a lot of people don't get the chance to see. It is a segregated country to start with and genders don't mix and woman exists really far in this kind of a closed world. And, again, the country itself is very closed and people don't get the chance to see anything. They don't know how the houses are, how the country looks like, and all this.

Schachter: From what I understand, Wadjda was shot largely on the streets of Riyadh . . .

Mansour: Mm-hmm.

Schachter: . . . and often in conservative religious neighborhoods there where men and women can't mix.

Mansour: Mm-hmm.

Schachter: What challenges did you face as a woman directing the film?

Mansour: Yeah, so many.

Schachter: So many.

Mansour: It's a conservative culture, so we were going against the current. People are nervous when they see cameras, access to location wasn't granted, like we would contract a place and they would tell us hours before we start shooting that we cannot and it is a segregated country, so I cannot go and work with the crew when we are outside. On the streets we cannot mix. So I had to be in a van and with a monitor and I talked through walkie-talkies. I screamed at everybody because I was in that confined place. And that is why also I had a child protagonist because if I cannot be in the streets, at least she can run and they can film her and all that. I know it's hard and very difficult, but it's such a rewarding feeling to be able to bring film to the [??] and it's the first film ever to be shot in there and it makes me proud. It's good to push the country toward becoming more tolerant and more, yeah, accepting of art, and they celebrate it a bit.

Schachter: Now, and how are you able to do that? What was it about you or your proposal that allowed them to give you permission?

Mansour: Just hard work. You know, the Arab world is all about bureaucracy and having papers stamped. And all that we've done to follow that paper from one office to the next getting it stamped. Which is true, a lot of people think that there's more to it than that, but I also tried to write a script that respects the culture and maintain my vision as a filmmaker. And a learned a lot from Iranian filmmakers where they have simple stories that say a lot about that culture and still it could pass back home and people will not be offended.

Schachter: Now, I know you have said that Saudi Arabia is opening up [??], slowly slowly.

Mansour: [??].

Schachter: Yeah, but the movie I found a little bit depressing because it showed the ways in which Saudi Arabia is not open yet. This is an eleven-year-old girl who just wants to ride a bike and is being told by everyone, her mother, the neighborhood boy, her school, that this is not what girls do.

Mansour: Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East in general, there are so many obstacles facing women and people who are trying to change or just to be happy. But the thing is the film, I feel like it is about not to give up. It is hard, it is difficult, but we have to be persistent. People have to change on that level, to believe in themselves and have the confidence and pursue a dream. Just that there is so much power in pursuing a dream regardless of where you are.

Schachter: Yeah, and there is a scene toward the end where Wadjda's mother tells her that she can do anything she sets her mind to. And this is one of those stories about a girl who does in fact seem like she can do anything she sets her mind to, but in Saudi Arabia, all I could think was, "No. No, you can't."

Mansour: I made a film there. There are no movies theaters in Saudi and there is nothing. The culture is so much against public exhibition of art. You cannot change drastically in places like Saudi. That is very true. If I want to make a film full of nudity or sexual scenes of things, I would never be able to do that in Saudi. But it is very important not to complain on how conservative it is, but how much you can make things there and make things wider as you go. And, yeah, I never imagined that I will be able to film in Saudi and I could not believe that when we got the permission to shoot, so yeah, things can happen really.

Schachter: What got you started being a filmmaker?

Mansour: You will like that answer. Because I was in Saudi and I felt I had no voice. I didn't have a voice and I was like trying to find myself, so I made a short. I was working at the time at an oil company and it is how, a society like Saudi is very male-dominated and I felt so invisible and it was a low point in my life and I just wanted to take a hobby. So I made a short and I submitted it to a local competition in Abu Dhabi and got accepted and they called me to come with the film and I could not believe it. I got a ticket, a free one, and hotel accommodation and all that. So I went that and when I arrived they told me, "You are the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia." [??] I think so.

Schachter: So this is just a hobby for you?

Mansour: No, I hope I make money out of it. But I started just to find a voice and I feel it is very important to pursue things that you like and love and enjoy. Life is very short and we should be happy.

Schachter: Director Haifaa Al Mansour, her film "Wadjda" is the first feature shot in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia's nomination for the Academy Awards. Haifaa, thank you so much.

Mansour: Thank you for having me. I really had a great time.