Dubai International Film Festival 2012: Wadjda
Posted on Friday December 14, 2012, 10:00 by Simon Braund in Under The Radar
Wadjda is twelve years old, and she’s a rebel. She doesn’t drink, she doesn’t smoke, she doesn’t do drugs, she doesn’t make out with boys. She’s polite, a good student and has a close relationship with her parents. The trouble is, Wadjda, the title character in director Haifa Al-Mansour’s brilliant film, wears sneakers, listens to pop music, occasionally forgets to cover her head when she’s out in public and wants, more than anything, to ride a bicycle. Wadjda lives in Saudi Arabia, where such behaviour from a young girl is not just frowned upon but actively suppressed.
Wadjda, which received a red carpet screening in Dubai last night, is the first feature film ever shot in Saidi Arabia. A remarkable feat in itself. That it was also directed by a woman is verging on miraculous. It’s an absolutely captivating film that puts a human face on the indignities and restrictions placed on women and girls in Saudi Arabia. Graced with an outstanding performance from 13-year-old Waad Mohammed in the lead, its points are barbed but delivered with great subtelty. And it ends in a moment of small triumph that, as does the film itself, suggests that girls like Wadjda may have a chance at a more fulfilling life than their mothers or grandmothers.
Empire spoke to Al-Mansour about the film and her struggle to get it made.
How did you, as a Saudi woman, get to become a film director?
Just from, my passion for film. That’s the first of many reasons. I come from a very small town in Saudi Arabia and entertainment was very limited, so my father would bring us DVDs to watch. That was my first exposure to film; they took me on journeys and showed me the world. I did my Masters in film in Sydney. I loved Sydney but after a while I wanted to go back to the Middle East. I had the urge to fight.
What obstacles did you face filming in Saudi Arabia, particularly being a woman?
There is TV in Saudia Arabia, so there is a system there. But as a woman I had to assert myself, which I do by empowering people. Of course the country is segregated, so when we were filming outside I had to be inside the van.
You mean because you weren’t allowed, as a woman, to be seen working in public, you had to direct the movie from inside a van?
That’s right. Only when we were filming outside. But it put pressure on me an on the actors, so we would practice the scene before we went to the location to make sure Waad knew what I wanted. We developed great trust and communication, which was very important. And for me it was the first time I’d seen Saudi in a different way. Being a Saudi woman you are always in either in the car or in the office or in the house, so to walk on the street and experience things you don’t normally se was very rewarding for me - even if the country is , I felt closer to the street, more normal somehow. Although I had to jump back into the van sometimes. And it does say something about how the country is opening up. Yes, I had to be inside the van, but I got to make it and we got permission to film. That doesn’t mean I’m about to be out with a crew directing a film on the street. People will not accept that, but I felt that life had changed.
Do you feel you’re a role model, an inspiration to Saudi women? And does that mean people have certain expectations of you?
I try not to do things because people expect me to so them, be controversial because people want me to be controversial. I try to make things that I feel close to and give my own voice. But I feel it is important for Arab women to see stories like this, about people who break the norm. Aran societies are very conservative, ver visious when it comes to women. They always try to attack, attack, attack and limit [what women can do]. It’s very important to show you can step out of line and survive it.
Would it be correct to say cinema itself is considered sinful in Saudi Arabia?
Yes, it’s considered immoral.
So cinema’s not moral but television is?
I think that’s because cinema is more daring than TV. Although now with HBO and so on things are different. But TV has always been more conservative, and government controlled of course.
Given that, what reaction to Wadjda have you had in Saudi Arabia, particularly from the male hierarchy?
I don’t have a problems with the government because I try to work within the political and religious and social boundaries. I try to push those boundaries here and there, but I work within the frame.
But you are criticizing the status quo.
For sure, but I’m not doing it in a confrontational way. I’m trying to engage people in a dialogue. And there have been encouraging steps for women, like the Olympics (female Saudi athletes competed for the first time at the London Olympics). I don’t think confrontation really works in pushing boundaries. I think it’s important to make stories that talk to people. And in the end I’m a storyteller. I want people to see my films and laugh a little, cry a little and be touched on that level.
And Wadjda certainly does that, but it still makes a point.
Of course, you need to make people think about things and not take the culture as it is, to reconsider things. But you can do that in a way so people are enjoying listening to you, not getting angry.
So will people be able to see your film in movie theaters in Saudi Arabia?
We don’t have movie theaters. But we will do a DVD release and a TV release for sure. DVD rentals in Saudi are huge. Saudis love films, they’re film junkies. And they’ll travel to Bahrain at the weekend to see movies. They’ll drive four hours there and four hours back to go to the cinema.
So if film as such isn’t considered sinful, why are there no cinemas in Saudi?
Because it is a public embracing of art, and there is a huge difference in Saudi between what is public and what is private.
And is it true that girls in Saudi aren’t permitted to ride bikes?
Well it is just a film (laughs). But there is kind of a glass ceiling in Saudi. [For a woman] outdoor activities like riding a bike or driving a car would attract attention. But Saudi now is really opening up, and people sometimes don’t know what is permissible and what is not. There are so many things people have found they can do, but it is still a process of discovery. It’s important to acknowledge that things are changing, and King Abdullah has done a lot in opening things up for women. It’s a slow process; we’re not saying it there yet. But at least women will be voting in 2014, and hopefully women will run for office. So politically women are gaining more rights.
Are they allowed to drive yet?
Their not. But it is under discussion. And it will happen.