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First Saudi female director grabs spotlight

The first feature-length Saudi movie, “Wadjda”, hits French screens on February 6. It was also directed by a woman. FRANCE 24 interviewed Haifaa al-Mansour about being a female filmmaker in a deeply conservative Middle Eastern country.


It may tell a modest tale, but when Haifaa al-Mansour’s “Wadjda” hits French screens on February 6 (and arrives in the UK this spring and the US this summer), it will make history.

The story of a schoolgirl in Riyadh who enters a Koranic singing competition in the hope of winning money to buy a bicycle, the film is billed as the first-ever Saudi big-screen feature; it was shot entirely in Saudi Arabia with a Saudi cast and crew, and – most notably, given that women’s rights in the Middle Eastern nation are severely restricted – was written and directed by a Saudi woman.

38-year-old Mansour, who studied film in Australia and today lives in Bahrain with her American diplomat husband, made a name for herself in her native country thanks to a few short movies and a documentary that garnered attention on the international festival circuit.

But her leap into longer-form, fictional filmmaking in Saudi Arabia came with a whole other set of challenges. The deeply conservative Muslim country has a history of hostility towards artists, a barely-existent movie industry and only a few cinemas (“Wadjda” will be shown on TV and released on DVD in Saudi Arabia). Mansour was nevertheless able to scrape together funding for the film with the help of a group of German producers and an Arab entertainment company owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

That doesn’t mean all went smoothly. While shooting certain scenes in areas where women are not allowed to be seen with men, Mansour had to hide in a car, directing her cast and crew by walkie-talkie.

The effort paid off richly: “Wadjda” was selected to premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival in 2012, where it took home the prestigious International Critics Prize.

In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24, Mansour discussed her cautious approach to the material, her favourite filmmakers, and her reputation in Saudi Arabia.

FRANCE 24: You grew up in Saudi Arabia, a country with almost no movie theatres. How did you become interested in film?

Haifaa al-Mansour: I come from a small town, and there were no movie theatres, but lots of video cassette rentals. There were twelve of us kids in the family. My father [Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour] used to show us films to calm us down when we were running all over the place. He would bring home mostly mainstream movies: Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, a lot of American films, Bollywood and Egyptian films. It opened the world to me. It allowed me to see different places and different things. And emotionally, the films took me on journeys. I remember the first time I saw “Snow White”, the Disney movie, it was the greatest day of my life. I was mesmerized.

Later, over the years, there were many films that inspired me for “Wadjda”: Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” and the whole Italian neo-realism movement, with its honesty and transparency in portraying a specific place; Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director, and his film “Offside”, which is so colourful and funny; and the Dardenne brothers, especially “Rosetta”, with the female protagonist who never gives up in trying to change her situation.

F24: What audience did you have in mind when making this film? Were you trying to give Western audiences a glimpse of life in Saudi Arabia, or to inspire women from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region, who have to live with numerous restrictions?

HM: Both, actually. I wanted the film to be enjoyable for everyone to watch. But I also added details that only Saudis will notice -- nothing essential in the story, but certain phrases or expressions in certain scenes, for example, that Saudis will understand, while Egyptians or other Arabs won’t. It’s very important to me to make Saudis proud; this film is their product, it’s about them. The film portrays hope and inspiration and dedication, but it’s Saudi to the core. I hope that will help Saudis embrace it.

F24: What are things like today for aspiring filmmakers in Saudi Arabia?

HM: There are no film courses in the Saudi university curriculum. And a lot of people in Saudi Arabia have considered art impure, and certainly not essential. So it has been difficult for people who want to make films. Now things are opening up. A lot of people are becoming more tolerant and accepting. So there are many more artists emerging now, and lots of debate going on.

F24: How are you perceived in Saudi Arabia?

HM: I’m a polarising figure. Some people are for me; they want to see more women participating in art and public life. And some are against me. Saudi Arabia is a very conservative place, so intellectuals and artists who want to criticise the country do it within limits rather than in an outrageous way. I work within the boundaries, but I always try to push things a bit further and express my opinion on social issues.

In general, I try to not be offensive when I talk about subjects that are dear to me, like the issue of liberation of Saudi women and the need to give them more freedoms. I try to not be in-your-face. For example, in “Wadjda”, I tell a story about women, but I use children. I try to engage people in dialogue, and I think people appreciate that.

F24: What reaction are you anticipating when “Wadjda” premieres on TV and is released on DVD in Saudi Arabia?

HM: I was very nervous when the film screened at the Dubai Film Festival. There were a lot of Saudis who travelled to see it, because of all the buzz after Venice. But they liked it. Some of them told me they laughed at certain parts. Of course, the people who go to film festivals are the elites, the educated, and we’ll have to wait to see how the general Saudi public receives the film. I hope they see my intention, and understand it. It’s the story of a little girl who has a dream and empowers herself. If a Saudi father sees the film and decides to give something, even something little, to his daughter, for me that will be huge.

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