It's not often one gets to witness the founding of a national cinema, but that's what we get with Wadjda, the new film by Haifaa Al Mansour. Not only is Wadjda supposedly the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, but it's also directed by a woman, which makes it particularly remarkable—this is, after all, a country where women gained suffrage all of eight years ago, and are still restricted from driving.
It’s fair to say that Wadjda’s received more attention for the circumstances behind its production—the queen of Jordan as well as Gloria Steinem attended the Tribeca Film Festival premiere—than for the film’s own merits. Wadjda is the story of a 10-year-old girl by the same name growing up in a suburb of Riyadh and bristling at the confines of her conservative surroundings. Specifically, she longs for a bicycle, and the liberation she’s certain will come with it. Wadjda's quest to get a bike, in a country where girls were banned from riding them until earlier this year, gives us a glimpse of a society inching towards modernity at a glacial pace.
Though the subject at hand is a radical one—the rights and roles of women in a religiously orthodox country—the treatment here is anything but. Instead, the director veils her story in a quaint, if not slightly predictable narrative. It’s clear that Al Mansour is treading lightly here, and probably for good reason. In the final scene of the film we see Wadjda come to a busy intersection and stop, staring out intently at the stream of cars crossing her path. Whatever progress Wadjda has made, Al Mansour suggests, is just the beginning of a very, very long road.
In advance of the film’s premiere I met with director and writer Haifaa Al Mansour in the posh Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York to discuss the beginnings of Saudi cinema and the revolutionary impact of film.
How did you get started in cinema? I grew up watching a lot of films. I come from a small town, and all our entertainment growing up was film. When I finished college I started working at an oil company and I felt almost like I was invisible. It was really difficult. I felt like I wanted to vent, and do something like a hobby, so I made a short film with my brother. I found a competition in Abu Dhabi, and I got accepted, and they sent me a ticket and I naturally progressed from that point.
What kind of films do they show in Saudi Arabia? Egyptian films, Indian films, of course—a lot of Bollywood, a lot of dancing. Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was like, the biggest hit; every kid in Saudi had Bruce Lee poster. And of course a lot of American cinema, like, all the blockbusters. High cinema or independent art-house, foreign film, is not available.
Is there really no such thing as Saudi cinema? There are no Saudi films. Because we don’t have theaters, the industry never picked up. Everybody who wants to do acting, or do some directing, they would plug into TV, because TV’s huge. If you want to make money or a career, that is where you go.
That’s so strange because here, you can make much more money in movies than in TV. It’s the other way around in Saudi. Like, Reem Abdullah [who plays Wadjda’s mother in the film] is a big TV star and when I brought her to the film [it was] like, what? How could I have brought Reem for a film? It’s a step down for her.
Since there is no Saudi cinema, where did you look for inspiration? I love the Bicycle Thief. Italian realism, I felt it’s a school that I could use. It’s about bringing life without the studio and I wanted that. And Iranian cinema showed me how I can deal with my culture. And I love the Coen Brothers. Fargo was an amazing film.
Why did you choose to build the film around a bicycle? It’s a nod, of course, to the Bicycle Thief, but also because for my culture, it is not intimidating, it’s a toy. For me, a bicycle is a very modern concept. It’s about acceleration, it’s about independence, it’s about being on top of one’s destiny, steering and all that. And in Saudi, we don’t have this kind of modernity, but we have technology in our consumption. We have beautiful cars, beautiful buildings, TVs, flat screens and all of that. And for me, it was interesting to somehow tap into this.
Are things changing in Saudi Arabia? Yeah, Saudi Arabia is moving away from a lot of things, and changing. It’s very slow, but it’s opening up. For so long, it was very conservative, and a lot of ideologies were all about excluding women from the public life and all that. And now, things are becoming more relaxed, a little bit more tolerant, and women are getting more voice, and more chances.
Although your film touches on sensitive subjects, it does so delicately. Is that your preferred method of changing society? Yeah, little by little. And by respecting people. I know where people come from in Saudi—they're very conservative. They want to protect the values they think are right. I sympathize with that. There's no point in making a loud film. I’m not offending people. I just hope when they see the film, they get touched, and they see themselves in it.
How has this film been received by Saudis? The younger people are happy, and they are excited to see it. But also, Saudis are very conservative, and a lot of people don’t like that women make films, and speak about themselves. So, I wouldn’t say [the response has been] mixed. It’s more like it’s split.
Why do you think it took a woman to make the first film Saudi film? I really wanted to have a voice and I think I lacked this in the culture. Because I had the urge to tell a story, I wanted to exist, I wanted this kind of recognition, maybe, in a culture that sometimes doesn’t see women. Maybe that is part of it, but I love film also so maybe it’s just me following a dream—very selfish, kind of.
Where would you like Saudi Arabia to be in, let’s say, 20 years, 30 years? I don’t know, I want to have women enjoy more rights, for sure. I would love to see more tolerance, more accepting—a place where people can participate with freedom from oppression. I really don’t want to see Saudi Arabia going into any kind of revolution, and I think that is what is happening. I’m scared because I see Egypt is falling down, and Tunisia, and a lot of places used to be a little bit more liberal, more open, and now very conservative ideologies are becoming stronger. Saudi Arabia now finally is just opening up, just moving away from those ideologies, so I hope that change continues in that direction.
Is there any other facet of Saudi culture that you'd want to explore in a future film? Saudi Arabia is a very young nation. It’s like, maybe 70 percent, or 65 percent of [the] population is below the age of twenty-one, or twenty-five. I want to tell the stories of those kids because they grew up in a place [where] they have access to the world—they have internet, they have everything. And then they have to abide by this kind of really traditional culture, and there's always tension in what they want, and what is expected from them.
So you’re not going back to the oil company? No. I’m not. I hope I become a working filmmaker.
It looks like you already are. Oh yeah, it’s amazing to be here, right? Oh, it’s such a surreal thing.
Wadjda is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and will be rolling out nation wide in the coming weeks. For a full schedule, see here.