Quiet Revolution: Haifaa al-Mansour on Wadjda

Haifaa al-Mansour's Wadjda is remarkable on several levels. Not only is it a sparkling feature debut, it's also the first film to be entirely shot within Saudi Arabia. We speak to the director ahead of Wadjda's screenings at Glasgow Film Festival

Feature by Philip Concannon | 18 Jul 2013

It's already quite an achievement for a filmmaker to make a great debut film in a country that closed down all cinemas in the 1970s, but when you consider that the director is a woman, and the country she hails from is Saudi Arabia, it's hard to believe that the film even exists. Haifaa al-Mansour's Wadjda is a tale of female independence that explores the oppression of women in Saudi society through the eyes of a headstrong ten-year-old girl whose only desire is to buy a bike so she can go riding with her male friend. In a country where women's rights are severely restricted, the emergence of this touching and illuminating film feels like a radical moment for cinema in the Middle East.

Haifaa al-Mansour certainly doesn't look like a revolutionary figure, and the petite, cheerful director chuckles when I suggest Wadjda is a feminist breakthrough. “I don't try to be a feminist, but if I am a feminist then that's good,” she says. “I don't try to make a film for a message, I make a film for a story. But for sure, women’s rights and women’s issues in Saudi Arabia is a big thing, and as a woman living there I want to tell stories about myself and my sisters, and I want the situation to change. I have a daughter and I want her to have a better life, I want people to respect her, I want her to feel she has ownership of things, and I feel Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go for that to happen. Women still need to fight more, to stick together, to voice their demands, and making films is one of the ways to do that. But I just want to make films that I feel and relate to – stories from my world – rather than making a film that is feminist.”

Al-Mansour has been telling such female-led stories through her television shows and a series of short films, and she is a polarising figure in her homeland, celebrated by progressive Saudis and viewed with suspicion in more conservative quarters. The strange tension that exists between the country's old and new viewpoints can be seen in the fact that al-Mansour received backing from King Abdullah to make the film but still had to hide in the back of a van when shooting on location. “The people who live in this conservative culture think that TV is corrupt and women should not appear on TV, they should stay at home. So if they don’t accept that, then for sure they won’t accept a woman coming into their neighbourhood to make a film,” she says. “While I wanted to make the film I also wanted to respect the culture, because the ultimate goal is just to make a film, not to create conflict with people.” In fact, what al-Mansour really wants to create is a conversation. “I am also trying to engage them in a dialogue, I don’t try to push them aside,” she explains. “I respect them and I want them to respect me so we can talk and we can influence each other. I’m sure a lot of people think women like me threaten their society or their values, but that's not the case.”

"The ultimate goal is just to make a film, not to create conflict with people" – Haifaa al-Mansour

Right now, the director just wants people to see her film. She plans to show Wadjda on television in her native country and is trying to arrange cultural screenings in museums and other public centres, so they can see the human face she is putting on Saudi society. Beyond that, al-Mansour hopes that she can be the first of many, and that the success of Wadjda will encourage other young artists to make their voices heard. “It takes a lot of courage to make a film, to put yourself out there, especially in a place like Saudi Arabia which has such peer pressure and is so tribal and collective. It is very hard for someone to think as an individual. If this film is a success I hope it encourages more production and funding in more local talent.”

Whether Saudi cinema has a bright future or not remains to be seen, but al-Mansour is an optimist and she firmly believes that the country is moving in the right direction, as its younger generations push for a modernised Saudi Arabia. “There is a gap between religion and culture, and people are changing a lot,” she explains. “Five years ago, people were so strongly against any kind of culture or entertainment, and now the percentage of people shifting towards wanting films and theatre is increasing day by day. A lot of it is down to young people. I think Saudi Arabia is 65% or 70% young, so those people are responsible for making a change.”

Wadjda is released nationwide 19 April by Soda pictures