Undercover director: Saudi film-maker Haifaa al-Mansour

Haifaa al-Mansour, the only Saudi woman ever to direct a feature film in her restrictive homeland, knows how to become invisible. Wadjda, her charming tale of an 11-year-old girl who dreams of buying a green bicycle to race against a friendly neighbourhood boy, was shot largely on the streets of Riyadh, often in conservative religious neighbourhoods where it is forbidden for men and women to mix, so Mansour spent much of her time directing from the back of a van.

“I could only go outside with my film crew when we had permission, so it was difficult,” she says. She frequently had to rely on walkie-talkies and watching scenes unfold on a monitor to direct her actors. “It made me realise the need to rehearse and to develop an understanding for each scene before we shot it.”

The film hinges on Wadjda’s decision to participate in a Koran recital competition at her all-girls school, so she can win a cash prize of SR1,000 (£175) – enough to pay for her bike. Despite the restrictions on her directorial freedom, Mansour draws a vivacious performance from first-time actor Waad Mohammed, who plays the eponymous Wadjda as a Converse-wearing, wheeler-dealing force of sweetly impertinent nature.

Since the Arabic-language film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year to considerable acclaim, Mansour has been on a whistle-stop tour of the world’s movie hubs. We meet at the Gothenburg Film Festival in Sweden, where she scooped the audience award for best feature film; other awards have flowed in from festivals in Palm Springs, Rotterdam, Tallinn and Venice, and next month it will be shown at the Gulf Film Festival in Dubai and at New York’s Tribeca festival.

Small, dressed in black jeans and a denim jacket, Mansour fills the room with her livewire energy. Constantly tapping the floor with her feet, she leaves her tea untouched and leans forward to answer each question as though facing down a stiff breeze.

She based the character of Wadjda on one of her brother’s nieces, who, she says, rebelled against a strictly religious upbringing. She also drew on her own life as the eighth of 12 siblings who grew up in a conservative, albeit progressive, household where her father, Abdul Rahman Mansour, a Saudi poet, introduced her to films and allowed his children to watch video cassettes including Disney movies, Bollywood dramas and Bruce Lee flicks. This despite the fact that in Saudi Arabia cinemas were outlawed in the 1970s and television was also considered a pernicious influence – Mansour remembers with a smile how her “grandmother used to cover her face in front of the TV”.

Yet, says the 38-year-old director, “My father never made me feel there was something I couldn’t do just because I was a girl.”

This included buying her own green bicycle, although there were limits to what she could do on it. “He told me not to go outside,” she says. “But houses are quite big in Hofuf [eastern Saudi Arabia] where we lived and we had a courtyard where I rode my bike.”

Such circumscribed freedoms were expanded when she went to study comparative literature at the American University in Cairo and then attended film school in Sydney. Back in Saudi Arabia, she proceeded to smash taboos with three successful short films followed by an award-winning 2005 documentary entitled Women Without Shadows, about the custom of wearing the abaya (a full-length cloak that covers all but the hands, face and feet). Not only did this work influence a whole new group of Saudi film-makers, it also brought to the fore the notion of opening cinemas in Saudi.

Waad Mohammed and Abdullrahman Al Gohani as Abdullah in ‘Wadjda’

A feature film was something else, however, and her steely determination saw her through the five years it took to make Wadjda. Much of the time was spent struggling to find finance and getting the permission she needed to film in Saudi Arabia, something she insisted upon for reasons of authenticity. As so often in the kingdom, help came from the top: Women Without Shadows had come to the attention of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a forward-thinking member of the royal family, and his film production company Rotana agreed to provide backing.

“I think his [the prince’s] vision is to push for women and his vision is to push for film in Saudi,” Mansour says. “That is why Rotana came aboard.

“But I really wanted to find a foreign co-producer because in Saudi, as there are no movie theatres, there is no film industry to speak of and, therefore, very little money for investment,” she adds. “I was very lucky to be selected for a Sundance writers’ lab in Jordan and people there eventually put me in touch with Razor.”

The German production company Razor, which had already co-produced such Middle East-set films as Waltz with Bashir and Paradise Now, joined forces with Rotana.

When writing the screenplay for Wadjda, Mansour says she was mindful of neorealist cinema: Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, naturally, but also more recent films with a feminist slant such as Jafar Panahi’s Offside and the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta. Besides the obvious symbol of freedom the bicycle represents, the film’s story includes the threat of emotional abandonment by Wadjda’s glamorous father, who wants to take a second wife who will give him a son.

The original draft of her screenplay was much bleaker than her finished film turned out to be. “The theme which remained was this girl who refuses to give up and tries to raise herself above the circumstances of her life,” she says. “I decided I didn’t want the film to carry a slogan and scream but just to create a story where people can laugh and cry a little.”

Director Haifaa al-Mansour at the 2012 Venice Film Festival

Mansour’s film also has something of a pantomime villain, with the strikingly beautiful headmistress of Wadjda’s school prowling the corridors and inventing sadistic punishments for pupils flouting religious customs.

“It was very important for me to show that even women reinforce traditional values and that it is not only men,” she says. “The usual refrain is that the men are always the oppressors and the women are always victims but the situation is more complex than that.”

For the past few years, Mansour has been living in neighbouring Bahrain with her American diplomat husband and their two young children. She believes that women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are slowly improving. She applauds the royal family’s recent decision to appoint 30 women (27 of whom have PhDs) to the Shura Council, the kingdom’s formal advisory body, and also that from next year women will be allowed to vote in municipal elections.

She seems more equivocal about the future of women making films in Saudi Arabia. “There are a lot more film-makers making short films and civil liberties have improved,” she says. “But still, even with a film like Wadjda, which is not intended to be controversial, some conservatives in Saudi have criticised certain aspects of it. You see every time a woman comes out and voices her opinion there are people who think this threatens their values.”

‘Wadjda’ is the opening film of the sixth Gulf Film Festival, Dubai Festival City, April 11-17, and will be shown at Tribeca Film Festival, New York, on April 21 and 25. It is on release in the UK on July 19

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.