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By Haifaa al-Mansour
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—Developing Wadjda, the first full-length feature film ever shot entirely inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and directed by a woman, posed some wholly unique challenges that come with making a film in a country where cinema is illegal, public displays of art are vilified, women are marginalized, gender segregation is strictly enforced, and tribal and fundamentalist groups stand resolutely against anything they feel threatens their values.
Moreover, the film focuses on what a difficult place Saudi Arabia can be for women. It tells the story of a feisty 10-year-old girl from Riyadh who enters a religious competition, memorizing passages of the Quran in order to raise enough money to purchase a bicycle. The bicycle is a metaphor for freedom of movement that does not exist for women and girls in Saudi Arabia. If I want to go anywhere, I need permission. I cannot drive a car, walk the main streets, or even take a train without family permission. But my film is not about complaints or accusations; it is more about what we can do to move ahead, to change our world, and to create a positive space on an intrapersonal level.
I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia where there are many girls like Wadjda, who have big dreams, strong characters, and so much potential. I set out to tell their stories with authentic, local voices, and to do it with an all-Saudi cast in the very heart of Riyadh.
The trajectory was often tortuous, but my goal was clear. And here I have attempted to set forth the various steps along this path toward final production, suggesting the problems of sex and gender—the politics and the social context of this project that seems to have touched so many people across the globe.
I workshopped the script for several years, in various international screenwriting labs, to polish the structure and make the themes as universally understandable as possible. My biggest fear was that international audiences would find it difficult to relate to this very foreign and hidden world that I called home. Once the script was ready, I traveled around the world for several years to find the right partners and financial backers to bring it all together.
Shooting in Riyadh was also quite a challenge. I had to shoot a lot of the out- door scenes from a van because the country is segregated, and women are not expected to work in public with men. It was difficult not to be as close to the set as I needed to be, but it made me work that much harder. In the end, any of the difficulties we faced were worth it.
It is my hope that Wadjda encourages women to tell their stories—and to take chances. It wasn’t easy to get this film made, but the positive response from audiences around the world should inspire Saudi women to put themselves out there. It is worth the struggle.
The fact that Wadjda was made demonstrates how much the Saudi landscape is opening up—to the idea of film, and even to the idea of women participating more openly in the society. While many still oppose the idea of opening theaters in the Kingdom, the tone of the debate has changed. There is a pervasive sense of inevitability to the changes that are coming. We had riots in the 1970s over the introduction of television, when the mutawa (religious police) used to shoot the satellite dishes off of people’s roofs. But a 21st century reality has overshadowed the television debate, and the increasing flow of information into the Kingdom has become too pervasive to effectively control.
There is incredible momentum for the Gulf film industry now, with many film funds and festivals emerging in the region to support local voices. We now have millions of young Saudis posting videos and commentary on the internet, and scores of young Saudi filmmakers developing films of their own. I look forward to being a part of this movement and to shooting another film inside the Kingdom. It is such a ripe environment for drama, and there are so many stories yet to be told. The interplay between tradition and modernity creates just the right amount of tension for great stories.
Haifaa al-Mansour is a Saudi Arabian film director whose first feature-length film, Wadjda, a multiple award-winner released by Sony Pictures Classics, was the first filmed in Saudi Arabia and the first directed by a woman.
[Anatomy designed by Meehyun Nam-Thompson]