You think being a director in Hollywood is hard? Try making a film in a country which has little interest in women in general, no film industry, or movie theaters.
That’s what Haifaa al-Mansour, a Saudi Arabian, faced when she decided to make films. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s sharia law places restrictions on women, but al-Mansour made her first feature film, Wadjda, within the confines of her government’s laws and strict censorship. It was the first Best Foreign Language Film entry to the Academy Awards from Saudi Arabia and while it made the short list, it wasn’t a final nominee.
Saudi Arabia outlawed movie theaters in the 1980s, but al-Mansour grew up watching VHS tapes of American, Chinese, and Bollywood films. “They took me away from my hometown, the little world I’m in, and they showed me life, people fighting for their country and falling in love,” al-Mansour said.
Al-Mansour said she didn’t realize she wanted to be a filmmaker until after college. She also holds a master’s degree in directing and film studies from The University of Sydney. “I moved back to Saudi and started working and I felt so invisible as a woman. Nothing against me, really, but it is the culture. It weighed me down. And I felt I needed some kind of way to vent.”
She made several shorts before attempting a feature-length work. For her first short, she enlisted the help of her sister and brother. After it was finished, she sent it to a small competition and got accepted. When she attended the festival, she said it was a turning point. “People started talking to me all of a sudden and asking what I think of stuff. It gave me that voice and I really enjoyed making films, so naturally it progressed after that. But I really made films because I was trying to find my voice, I was trying to find a space that I would inhabit as a person and express my opinions,” she said.
In 2005, she made a feature-length documentary, Women Without Shadows, in which she interviewed Saudi women about their role in the country’s society. In Saudi, women are required to wear a full abaya (headscarf) that covers their hair and face. Some areas of the country are more liberal than others in regards to women’s dress code. (Riyadh, where Wadjda is set, is more conservative.) Although many women wear the traditional black abaya, they come in a variety of colors and styles, some even feature cartoon characters.
Men and women’s worlds are additionally separated due to religious practices. For example, women pray separately from men. If a husband has male friends over, they will usually stay in a separate room from the women and she cannot let them see her out of her abaya. (Again, this depends on how strict the area or even sometimes a family is in regards to sharia law.)
In order to obey sharia law, women cannot be seen working outside by men, which means when al-Mansour was filming Wadjda, she often had to stay in the van for exterior shoots, and direct her crew over the walkie talkies and confer with actors in the van in between shots.
Wadjda gets its title from the main character, a pre-teen girl growing up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A bit of a rebel and tomboy, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) attends a conservative school, but wears Converse with her school uniform. While she wears an abaya, it does not cover her face and is always falling off to expose her hair. (A full abaya is not usually worn until women reach puberty.) Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) works at a school that requires a three hour commute everyday. Her driver is rude and always complains that she is late. Wadjda talks back to him, saying he’s the one who is late. Wadjda is content to buck the system. Her goal is to save up enough money to buy a bicycle. (Her mother says she can’t ride a bike, she won’t be able to have children.)
Wadjda excels at math but is frequently in trouble for her behavior at school. She sells bracelets she makes to the other girls in order to earn money for her bicycle, but is caught. She agrees to take a letter from an older girl at the school to her brother who is waiting outside. Later, Wadjda is asked about whether she was involved in the situation, because it turns out the “brother” was actually probably the girl’s boyfriend and they’ve run off together. Despite her troubles at schools, she decides to enter a school contest on the Koran, mostly because the prize money is enough to buy her bicycle.
Things aren’t perfect for Wadjda at home, either. She hears her parents fighting about whether her father is going to marry again because her mother can’t provide him with a son. (There were complications during birth and her mother almost died.) Most of the film, her father is not present or only around occasionally.
Not only is the film a coming of age story, but it examines the world Saudi women occupy, whether it’s someone who tries to change the rules and buck the system like Wadjda or someone who is trying to fit in and go along with the system, like her mother.
Al-Mansour says she isn’t someone who set out to break taboos. “I try to do things that make me happy, and that’s how I got into film. I wasn’t trying to be the first female filmmaker. I wasn’t trying to shoot the first film in Saudi or anything. I was just trying to make a film that I love and enjoy and find a voice of my own.”
She said that her intention wasn’t to speak out for Saudi women, but she simply wanted to tell their stories because she knows they are untold. “I have so much access and I wanted to tell stories about the world I belong to, to the rest of the world.”
It appears that Al-Mansour is also interested in telling other women’s stories, too, as she has signed on to direct A Storm in the Stars, a film about Mary Shelley, which will star Elle Fanning.