Saudi Arabia's First Female Filmmaker Finds Her Voice

The film Wadjda, which premieres in New York on Friday, is a remarkable film on many levels. In addition to being a sparkling feature-length debut, it also happens to be the first film shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. What’s more, it was written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the country's first female filmmaker.

I had the honor of sitting down with Al-Mansour to discuss her breakthrough film, a tale of female empowerment that explores the oppression of women in Saudi Arabia through the eyes of a spunky 10-year-old girl named Wadjda. The character is determined to raise enough money to buy a bike so she can go riding with her male friend. Given that Saudi Arabia is a country where cinema is banned, and women cannot drive, ride bicycles, or vote, the emergence of this touching and illuminating film is a triumphant moment for Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.


Missy Kurzweil: Did you want to become Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker?

Haifaa Al-Mansour: No. That wasn’t my intention. When I started my first short film, it was only to have a voice. When I finished college and started working, I felt so invisible as a woman in Saudi Arabia. I wanted to move ahead.

Saudi Arabia is now opening up, and there are more opportunities for women, but when I was working, it was the early 2000s, and it was harder for women than it is now.  So I got tired, I hit a low point, and I just wanted to do something as therapy. Like a hobby, just to vent. So I made a short film with my brother — he was holding the camera, with my sister holding the light — and we submitted it to a local competition in Abu Dhabi. And it got accepted! And they sent me a ticket to come to the screening. So I was feeling good, you know? And I went there, and they told me, "You are the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia!" It was really nice to see people listening to me like my opinion matters.

MK: You once said, "in Saudi Arabia, there are no movie theatres, there is no film industry to speak of." If that's the case, how were you first exposed to film?

HM: Well, there are no movie theaters, but there were lots of rental places when I was growing up. So I watched a lot of films. And I am one of 12 kids, so you can imagine our house. I grew up in a small town, so there is no entertainment. So we got a lot of videos to watch.

I remember, there was always a sign outside: "Women are not allowed into the video store." So I’m wearing my head covering and waiting outside, and the guy would come with all the catalogs, and I would check all the titles I wanted, and he would go inside and bring the movies outside.

MK: How much of the story of Wadjda is based on your own life?

HM: A lot. I grew up in a small town and went to public schools exactly like the one in the film. Those are my teachers. That is the world I inhabited. My family is really traditional — we are not rich, and my parents don’t speak English. But at home, I never felt that there were things I couldn't do. For a lot of people around me, there were things they could not do, and I feel the film is more about them, and about their more limited surroundings. There were so many girls that I went to school with who had great potential, but gave up because they didn’t have the same kind of support I had. [Wadjda] is for them to believe in themselves, and challenge their situation. To change it. But it definitely comes straight from my life.

MK: Do you ride a bicycle?

HM: Now? I stopped riding a bicycle when I was 10. And when I was editing the film in Germany, you know how Germany is, everyone rides a bicycle. So they gave me a bicycle, and I wanted to try it, but [laughing] don’t try to ride a bicycle in Germany! They are so serious!

MK: With Wadjda, did you set out to spark a debate about women’s rights, or was that simply a byproduct of your art?

HM: I’m sure it’s always a byproduct of my art. But what I really wanted was to inspire people. If people go and see the film, and they buy something for their little daughter, and embrace them, and give them a little bit of a space, that is what drives me. But, of course, especially when you’re in Saudi Arabia, if any woman comes in and makes a film or writes a story, there will be a lot of debate, because it is a culture that is conservative. And a lot of people do not want women to take that kind of a position. They want women almost to exist in privacy, and they create a lot of social pressure to bring them down.

So there is always this kind of debate, but I think it’s healthy. I respect the conservatives, and I understand where they’re coming from. They want to keep the society pure, and all that. I wasn’t trying to offend them, as much as make an emotional story, and take them with me on a journey.

MK: How has the film been received in your home country, and in other parts of the Arab world?

HM: At home, there is lots of support, because I tried to write a story that maintains my voice. It’s about empowering women, and all that, but still, it is not very extreme. It’s not radical.

So, from the official side, I haven’t had problems. A lot of liberals and intellectuals have been supportive. But on the streets, people are very conservative, and they don’t like women coming out and voicing their opinions, let alone becoming filmmakers, so there’s been some resistance.

I see a lot of Egyptian and Syrian women, and they tell me they weren't able to ride a bicycle until they were, like, 30 or 40, because it was considered dangerous for their “virtue.” So it’s not only an issue in Saudi Arabia, but across the Arab world.

MK: What was it like filming on the streets of Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh?

HM: It was really difficult to film there. Some of the people were very conservative, and people would kick us out, and we would have to go back again because we didn’t have the scene right. But it was amazing to go to places where people are happy. They bring food, and they want to take pictures, and be with the camera. Riyadh is very conservative — it is the heart of conservatism. So I thought everywhere would be conservative in Riyadh, and every neighborhood would be closed to us, or we’d always have to find a way to film somewhere else. And it’s nice to see that it’s becoming more tolerant, more open.

MK: When you went back, did you observe any changes in the society? Particularly with women?

HM: Well, I left in 2007. But since 2007, there have been tremendous changes. Last year, there were two women in the Olympics, and this year, 30 women were appointed to the Shura Council, which is the upper house of parliament. Even the face covering has changed. A lot of women don’t cover their faces anymore, especially women in the younger generation. Not everybody, but it’s increasing.  Women are believing more in themselves, and their identities.

MK: Do you think the Arab Spring has had something to do with these changes?

HM: Well, in Saudi Arabia, I’m sure the government is making a lot of reforms, but I’m not sure if the Arab Spring has had an impact. I’m glad to see that Saudi Arabia is moving in a different direction, whereas places like Egypt and Tunisia used to be very liberal, and women enjoyed more rights. Now, they're becoming more conservative, and women are losing a lot of rights.

In places like Saudi Arabia — which is still very conservative in comparison, we are still the most conservative country — at least it is moving away from that. There is a push toward empowering women and giving them more rights, and making appearances more normal and natural. It’s very slow, but things are moving in the right direction.

MK: What advice would you give a young people with creative aspirations?

HM: Not to give up. It’s hard. It took me five years to find and convince a producer. It is always difficult. I would say they should stick to it, work hard, and believe in themselves. And try to find their own voice, and not anybody else’s. It’s very important to find that voice. And have something to say. 

MK: Wadjda has a rating of almost 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Have you been surprised by the reaction to your film?

HM: I know! It’s really amazing. I just can’t believe it. I’m so happy. 

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Missy Kurzweil

Missy Kurzweil is a freelance writer and editor in New York. She graduated from Cornell in 2007, and has been living, writing, working and playing in New York City ever since. Travel, yoga, coffee and dogs are a few of her favorite things.

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