A Groundbreaking Women’s Film from Saudi Arabia

Haifaa Al-Mansour is Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker. Her mesmerising new film Wadjda is the first film to be shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. A beautiful and heartwarming story, Wadjda has graced film festivals across the world, from the Venice Film Festival 2012 to the Los Angeles Film Festival 2013. 

The film tells the story of a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh. Despite her conservative surroundingswomen can’t play sports, travel without permission or drive a carWadjda is outspoken and determined to raise money for a bicycle so she can race the young boys around the town–a very improper desire for a girl in Saudi Arabia. The film reflects the struggle of women in Saudi Arabia for equality and for their voices to be heard.

Ms. was lucky enough to get a chance to interview Al Mansour about her film and about the reality of being a woman in Saudi Arabia:

Ms. Blog: Is the film going to be shown in Saudi Arabia?

Haifaa Al Mansour: I hope so; certainly it will be shown on DVD. Movie theaters are still illegal in Saudi, but we’ll try to find some public screening for it. Saudi Arabia is exciting now; it’s changing. There is hope for things to happen.

What are you hoping that the impact of the film will be in the U.S.?

I try to make an entertaining film that has humor; I want people to enjoy it. I’m coming from Saudi Arabia, which is heavy on women and the situation is hard, but I didn’t want to tell a horrific story. I wanted to tell a story of hope and moving ahead with life and how we can empower people not to cope with the situation but to change the situation. For me, making a film is about entertaining and educating, bringing higher values in life like tolerance, acceptance, hope, and embracing the love of life.

You said your main aim with the film is entertainment, and it is a story about a girl trying to get a bike—but it does have a wider social and political impact. Was that a conscious decision?

I come from a very small town in Saudi Arabia; I’m one of 12 kids! I went to public schools all my life so I wanted to tell that part of my life and then I wanted a modern concept of modernity, not just technology, but the concept of being on top of one’s destiny, about acceleration. So that is why I had the bike and the girl and the two concepts together. Still, the bike is a toy, it’s not intimidating. But then finding the dots between the bike and the girl, all the story was missing. I had to build the story. But it was very important to me to show the story between what is modern and traditional. Saudi is a rich nation, people have access to technology, they have beautiful buildings, amazing cars and they travel all over the world. Then they come back to Saudi Arabia and they have to abide by this very rigid traditional code and for me it’s amazing—the kids you see in the street have the full traditional wear and then they have sunglasses and iPads and it’s like, what?! What a striking image, it carries so much.

Can you tell me about feminism in Saudi Arabia?

Feminism is very defined as a concept so I don’t know if people in Saudi Arabia use that term that much, but there are certainly people who are calling for more women’s rights. There are lots of calls now to empower women and there are lots of female writers and novelists who are talking about themselves. They hope to empower other women to tell their stories and make changes in the way they think and consider women. That certainly is happening. Women all over the world have similar issues like getting pregnant and not being able to work, and not being heard.

Are things changing for women in Saudi Arabia?

Oh yeah, certainly they are changing for women. Not as fast as we hope, but earlier this year 30 women were assigned for the Shura Council, the highest representation in politics, and last year there were two girls in the Olympics, and then here’s a film!”

We filmed in Saudi with permission, but still for women there are so many restrictions. It is also tribal, it’s the social code—not only the government, it is how people are themselves. So it needs time to change, for people to embrace a different mind-set and embrace change. That is painful because people are moving away from values that they thought were right and that is what makes their identity. Embracing a new thing takes time.

Did any of those restrictions affect the filmmaking process or your ability to tell the story?

I know that I come from a very conservative place so I was always aware that I have to tell stories in a certain way to maintain my voice and not offend people back home. I was always working in that way. But also shooting was difficult because the country is segregated, so men and women are not supposed to co-exist in the public sphere. I always had to be in the van. I had a walkie-talkie and I was always shouting, and it’s frustrating! It is difficult for a woman in Saudi Arabia, there’s no way to say it’s not difficult, but it is very important to move away from that, try to find ways to do things and achieve things within that. I think that is what will push things to change— finding ways to work within that and pushing boundaries.

The character that really interested me [in the film] was the school principal, because she’s a powerful independent woman but she upholds the traditional values to her schoolchildren. Can you talk a bit about her character?

A lot of people think it’s a male-dominated society so men are the people who reinforce, which is true, but also women become part of the system and they try to reinforce values that they think are right, that they think are how society should be–maybe because they are insecure, or something. It’s very important not to neglect that, it’s not black and white. The father figure, also, I didn’t want him to be a totally bad person because men and women [are both] trapped in a society that is very conservative, very collective, an individual cannot make personal choices. It is all dictated by the social honor, the social code, what you are supposed to do, and it’s rigidly enforced. So for me it is very important to show that part.

Is there a character that you identify with in the film?

Of course: Wadjda. I was shy as a child, but I tried to inject a lot of things from my life. She’s a lot like my niece. My niece is feisty, she has a great sense of humor, she used to go outside to play and want to fight with all the boys, she was so cute! But my brother turned out to be conservative so she is now a very proper Saudi girl and I feel like that is a huge loss of potential. I went to school with amazing girls who can change the world but never had the chances because their world is so limiting and so different. People need to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams and move ahead, so [the film] is more for them.

What do you imagine Wadjda doing now?

She’ll be running for office or something! I don’t think she’ll give up, I would love to believe that. But it is difficult, and that is why we shouldn’t take it for granted, it needs a lot of work and courage and willing to fight for things. It’s not given, you have to take it.

A trailer for the film is available here.

Wadjda will be released in the U.S on September 13 2013.

Photo of Haifaa Al Mansour by Wikimedia Commons user Haylie Niemann under license from Creative Commons 3.0


Natasha Turner is a freelance journalist and editor based in London and a former Ms. editorial intern.