Imagine being a filmmaker not allowed to direct his or her actors in person during major scenes of your movie. That was one of the many challenges female Saudi Arabian film director/writer Haifaa Al-Mansour faced when making “Wadjda,” a drama that follows a 10-year-old girl (Waad Mohammed) living in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh who makes it her mission in life to raise enough money to buy a bicycle even though the culture frowns upon girls riding bikes. Instead of being on set with her actors during scenes shot outdoors, Al-Mansour had to camp out in a nearby van and direct her cast via walkie talkie.
“It was difficult,” Al-Mansour told me during a phone interview from her home in Saudi Arabia. “Just making a film there was very controversial. People were upset. A lot of people were reluctant to give us locations.”
Despite the obstacles, “Wadjda” was completed and a groundbreaking film was born. Not only was it the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director, it was the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. It was also Saudi Arabia’s first ever official submission to the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language category (unfortunately, it was not nominated).
During my interview with Al-Mansour, we talked about her inspiration in writing a title character like Wadjda and how she feels Saudi Arabia is changing for the better when it comes to social issues.
“Wadjda” was release on DVD and Blu-ray last week.
Were you worried about making a film featuring themes that don’t necessarily make Saudi Arabia seem like a very progressive country?
Well, there are definitely a lot of sensitive issues in the film. I wasn’t trying to be offensive. I tried as much as possible to be respectful, especially since I’m examining a place of religion. I know I was bringing up issues that people don’t necessarily want to talk about in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t want to take things for granted.
Explain a little about how filmmaking works in Saudi Arabia. How is being a female filmmaker challenging there?
There are no movie theaters, so public exhibition of film is not allowed. But that doesn’t mean you can’t shoot something. There’s a lot of TV happening in Saudi Arabia. (Laughs) TV [in Saudi Arabia] is a lot different – lots of makeup and extreme storylines. Saudi Arabia is very conservative, so sometimes it’s very hard for actresses to shoot outside. Sometimes they’ll go to places that are more relaxed like Dubai or neighboring countries that look like Saudi, but for me, shooting [“Wadjda”] in Saudi added authenticity to the film. The country is very segregated. I wasn’t able to shoot outside. For exterior scenes, I had to be in a van. I had a walkie-talkie with me, so I basically directed all of those scenes through that. But it was all worth it. I feel it’s very important to push for art in Saudi. I think it’s important to take advantage of those situations.
I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been as a director to be separated from his or her actors and not have access to them at all times.
Yeah, not only for blocking scenes and things like that, but it’s important for me to be near the actors. It made me learn a lot about empowering actors. I would just talk to them about the most important parts of the scenes and things they shouldn’t miss. It’s very hard to boil down a scene like that, especially when you’re working with young actors. But I liked the challenge. I just told myself, “We have to get this done!” I wanted to maintain my voice as an artist who has something to say about my society and things I would like to see change.
Since you grew up in Saudi Arabia, did you see a lot of yourself in Wadjda when you were a young girl?
Yeah, there’s a lot of my life as a kid in the film. But I mostly based the character of Wadjda off my niece. I am a very shy person. I was never [as outspoken] as Wadjda. But my niece is like Wadjda. Since my brother is very conservative, my niece has given up a lot. This film is for her and for other girls like her that are fighting for their individuality.
What were you looking for when you cast the title character of Wadjda? What did actress Waad Mohammed show you that made you cast her in the role?
I was looking for someone who authentically looked Saudi. Also, I was looking for someone who was natural. I wanted someone who was carefree and who could be themselves in front of a camera. Waad had this charisma. She came in like she didn’t care. (Laughs) She was wearing jeans. She didn’t comb her hair. I liked her. I liked that she wasn’t really trying to look girly. She had this confidence. She was the girl I wanted.
Does the social change happening right now in Saudi Arabia feel tangible? I mean, here in the U.S. we hear stories about how women are beginning to stand up against the ban on driving. That campaign seems to be getting more substantial every day. Can you feel that?
I definitely feel like there is a new generation of Saudi girls who are not taking no for an answer. These girls are growing up in a totally different world where there’s the internet and things like that. Some get their education abroad, so they see the outside world and how it functions. Then they are asked to go back home and abide by very traditional, very strict rules that don’t make sense to them. There is a new generation who want more from life. They’re willing to challenge authority. They want a normal life. It’s really refreshing to see that.
I know you have two children. Is one of them a daughter?
Yes, that girl is bossy. (Laughs) She says one day she is going to take over the world.
How old is she?
She is three.
Well, she might be a little too young to understand the social situations in Saudi Arabia, but how do you plan to talk to her about that later on? As a mother who has experienced those impeding social issues herself, how do you motivate her to overcome them?
Well, I don’t want her to ever feel like there is any kind of hindrance in her life. I want to tell her that if she works hard enough she will find support. There’s always pressure for women, not only in Saudi but everywhere, to act a certain way or dress a certain way or be a certain way. It’s important to leave that behind and focus on what makes you happy. I think it’s very important to empower girls in that way.