“Wadjda” is believed to be the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first to have a female director. It’s also Saudi Arabia’s first submission to the Academy Awards. That’s quite a feat for a country with no movie theaters. Not only would men and women sitting next to each other in a darkened room break the country’s strict code of public gender segregation, but it would also violate Saudi limitations on the exhibition of art.
Despite the lack of movie theaters, “Wadjda” director Haifaa al-Mansour grew up watching American films on VHS. She recalls being traumatized by “The Evil Dead” as a young child, when her family rented the movie knowing nothing about it except that it was a popular pick. After making several short films, mainly dealing with women’s issues in Saudi Arabia, al-Mansour completed a degree in film at the University of Sydney. She returned to her native country to film “Wadjda.”
The movie follows a spunky young girl, the title character, on her quest to buy a bike so she can race Abdullah, a boy in her neighborhood. Biking has traditionally been off-limits to Saudi women, though the government eased up on its restrictions in April, allowing women to ride bikes for recreation when accompanied by a male relative.
Though al-Mansour worked with a supportive Saudi cultural institute to secure the Academy Awards submission, reactions during filming weren’t always so positive. For outdoor scenes the director had to communicate with her cast and crew via walkie talkie from a van, lest she be seen commanding men. In some conservative neighborhoods, her team was asked to leave.
Pop Omnivore contributor Sharon Jacobs spoke with al-Mansour about “Wadjda” and the complications she confronted while making it.
The star of “Wadjda” is a little girl—played by then-12-year-old Waad Mohammed. Her friend and neighbor Abdullah is a young boy. Was it hard to find child actors for these parts in Saudi Arabia?
Well, all the adults are in the entertainment business in some way or another—TV is very big in Saudi. So [for adult actors] it was a smaller talent pool, but there is at least a pool.
But finding the girl, Waad, was difficult because you have to convince her parents. They have to take the decision to challenge the tradition, and be in the performance business. I think Waad convinced them behind the scenes. She really wanted it. And she was young, she was little. So they wanted to give her—like Wadjda—a little space before she grows up and becomes a woman.
Not a lot [of girls auditioned], maybe 50. Some of them were good, but their parents were reluctant. There were more boys, definitely.
You faced so many challenges in filming this. What was it like when the residents of a neighborhood shooed you out?
They would come [and say], “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here, this is a private thing, you have to go.” I was in the van always. People didn’t know there was a woman in there. It was against film, not against me, really. Sometimes we already had half of a scene there, so we’d really need to go back. We’d wait until they went inside. The Saudi producer would say, “We have about half an hour before they go out for prayer again. So just go very quickly!” So we would finish very quickly and leave.
But some places, really, people were nice—sometimes they would come out with a whole lamb to feed us.
If you were doing a sequel to “Wadjda,” what’s the next issue she would face in Saudi culture?
I think it would be professionally proving yourself. To get the chance to work. Because the culture is done in a certain way, women have a difficult time just moving ahead in careers—the lack of training for so long, being excluded from the workplace—maybe that is another thing women might face.
There’s a scene that deals with changes in the Saudi professional world. Wadjda’s mother visits a friend who works in a hospital, and is shocked because the friend covers her head but not her face.
Yes, because she doesn’t cover her face, and she’s working in a mixed environment with men, and all that.
Is that level of modesty typical for Saudi women?
Yes—it’s very conservative, and sometimes women are the gatekeepers of all that. They think they’re the ones who are supposed to keep the society pure and chaste. And they love to talk about other women. Like, leave them alone!
And in “Wadjda” there are male characters who support her, and female characters who hold her back. So it’s more complicated than the situation in Saudi is often painted in the media.
Exactly. And for me a character like Abdullah is full of hope—it’s about this guy who trusts himself enough to let the girl next to him have some space. He’s not intimidated by this girl.
When you were growing up in Saudi Arabia, could Wadjda’s story—a girl trying to ride a bike in public—have happened?
I grew up when Saudi was very, very conservative—it was that phase where all the literature is about excluding women from the public life, and when you go to the mall the religious police are cruising. So I don’t think that would have been taken lightly at that time.
But life is so much different now, and there is potential, and there is room. I hope women in Saudi believe in themselves to challenge [restrictions]. Because still Saudi is conservative, and they have to stand up for themselves if they want to do things. But there is the chance, there is the room. It is not very big, and they still have to work hard, but there is a crack that they can capitalize on.
This interview was edited and condensed.