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Saudi film-maker Haifaa al-Mansour wasn’t obliged by law to hide in a van when filming outdoor scenes for her Oscar-nominated feature Wadjda. It was just the best way of ensuring the film got made. “We really didn’t want to make a scene and clash with people,” she explains with typical pragmatism.
Saudi Arabia is not the kind of place where women direct feature films: al-Mansour is the first to do so. Nor can they drive, or travel without permission from a male guardian. The ultra-conservative forms of Islam which hold sway there seek to make women as invisible as possible. By working around such constraints to produce a hit film, the 39-year-old has been hailed as a trailblazer for Saudi women. Others argue that opportunities for women won’t come until the monarchical government, which has given its blessing to al-Mansour’s film, feels pressure to support change.
Few dispute, however, that Wadjda, which Saudi Arabia has submitted in the best foreign language category of the 2014 Oscars and has already garnered a cluster of awards, shows life in the kingdom as nothing before. It follows a 10-year-old tomboy – Wadjda – who has set her heart on buying a bike. The first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, it takes audiences inside lower-middle-class Riyadh: its dusty shops, crowded migrant quarters and classrooms of sniggering girls. The zest and warmth with which Wadjda’s story is told make its harsher realities all the more disturbing: her married classmate, her teacher’s admonition that “a woman’s voice is her nakedness”, her mother’s pain as her father comes under pressure to take a second wife.
Saudi Arabia has no cinemas but al-Mansour hopes the film will make it on to TV there after the DVD release. “I don’t know if this movie will be the beginning or the end of anything,” says Arab cinema critic Sheyma Buali, “but it has definitely made things healthier to talk about. It was very bold.”
Al-Mansour has pushed boundaries all her life. She grew up in small-town Saudi Arabia, devouring foreign films from her local video store (she had a special fondness for Jackie Chan). Later, she chose to study abroad in Cairo, something none of her peers did. “They thought I was committing social suicide and would never get married,” she recalls. After returning, she worked in an oil company, which she found depressing, “a very male-dominated culture”. She took to making short films as a hobby and solace.
When making Wadjda, her gender was less of a headache than the lack of a film industry. (She got support from a German studio.) But she has experienced hostility on Twitter. “It’s important not to think about that and focus on making things happen in Saudi,” she says.
She is not the only woman who has sought to make things happen in Saudi this year. A small but spirited group that has been flouting the driving ban called for Saudi women to get behind the wheel on October 26. Its campaign illustrates how hard it is to unravel the forces of conservativism in Saudi Arabia.
While some members of the ruling elite advocate greater rights for women, the government’s line is that it can’t move too far ahead of society. Women’s driving campaigners point out that the government has introduced plenty of things the conservatives didn’t like, including a decision to allow women to vote in municipal elections in 2015.
But the interior ministry issued a statement shortly before October 26 warning people not to break the law, and turnout was lower than hoped for. Aziza Yousef, one of the campaigners, insists the pressure has to be kept up. “If you don’t talk about your rights no one will give them to you – the government will think you are happy,” she says.
When al-Mansour has been asked about women’s rights, her answers have been diplomatic. Having watched her own niece, on whom she partly based the character of Wadjda, conform to conservative expectations, her instinct is to engage rather than confront.
“They’re entitled to believe what they believe,” she says of the conservatives. “We have to respect each other and start dialogue: I think that’s the only way progress can happen.”
While she clearly means this, avoiding unnecessary controversy must have been essential to getting a film made in such a sensitive environment, and it is storytelling that is al-Mansour’s priority. Indeed, it is tempting to see something of the director in the determination of her heroine, whose schemes to raise money for her bicycle range from black-market football bracelets to entering a Koranic recital contest. Al-Mansour is tickled by the parallel. “The bicycle is just like my film!” she exclaims. “A lot of hassling went into that.”
Although a passionate advocate of the power of “hassling” individuals to shape their destinies, she believes that serious change in Saudi Arabia will take time. For all her patience, she chafes at the idea of being confined to a van again. “It was very frustrating,” she recalls, laughing. “I hope when I shoot my next film it won’t be an issue.”
Abigail Fielding-Smith is the FT’s Beirut correspondent. ‘Wadjda’ is released on DVD on February 3