Haifaa Al Mansour: Calling the shots in a man's world

Saudi Arabian society still objects to women working with men. So when the country's first woman director, Haifaa Al Mansour, was shooting her debut feature, she had to hide in a van

There were sandstorms. The budget was stretched. The child actress lost a tooth during shooting, wreaking havoc with the continuity. Haifaa Al Mansour's tales from the battlefield of her debut feature film sound familiar. No one said making movies was easy. Then, there was the small matter that she was the first female director making the first ever feature film in Saudi Arabia, a country where cinemas are still illegal.

Wadjda, which received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, is groundbreaking on many levels. It is surely one of the only films in which the director had to hide while shooting. On location, she was obliged to sit in the back of a van.

"It's such a segregated country. People don't like to see women out there, working with men," the diminutive director observes. "It was difficult because you really want to be with your actors. This relationship between a director and an actor is something mystic. You don't want something to interrupt you. I have to tell you, I jumped a lot out of that van!"

In Saudi Arabia itself, Wadjda has an ambivalent status. On the one hand, it's a forbidden movie. On the other, it was made with the blessing (and financial backing) of Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. The film wasn't strictly illegal; this wasn't guerrilla filmmaking. However, the director makes it very clear that it simply wouldn't have been tolerated for a woman to be seen in a busy public place, controlling a film crew and calling the shots.

"You're not allowed to mix in the streets," she declares. "In some neighbourhoods, there was no question – I couldn't get out of the van. It is so conservative."

There is one sequence set in a shopping centre. Yes, Mansour had permission to shoot there but she also knew not to press her luck by staying too long. "We had to be careful and finish very quickly before people got annoyed. If a conservative person gets annoyed, he might cause problems."

The film tells the story of a 10-year-old girl desperate to buy a shiny new bicycle. That may sound whimsical and maudlin but to get hold of the bike, Wadjda must defy the religious authorities and her school teachers. In a deeply patriarchal society like Saudi Arabia where women (as Mansour pointedly puts it) don't have an identity, young girls aren't expected to be seen riding bikes. Wadjda's struggle mirrors that of Mansour herself to get her movie made.

Mansour is the eighth of 12 children ("seven girls and five boys") and grew up in a small town near Riyadh. Her parents were liberal and encouraged her filmmaking aspirations. "They are very traditional small-town people but they believed in giving their daughters the space to be what they wanted to be. They believed in the power of education and training. They taught us how to work hard."

Before she became a filmmaker, Mansour worked for an oil company. No, it wasn't fulfilling. "In the meetings, they would never listen to me. I felt I didn't have a voice. It is such a male-dominated culture. It's not like they were bad or anything. It is just that I was young – and I am little! Nobody would listen."

Desperate to express herself and passionate about film, Mansour took the leap and made a short film. "It was really for me. I just wanted to have a voice." To her amazement, her film, which she shot on a small digital camera, was picked up by several film estivals. "It was called Who? It is about a serial killer who dresses exactly like a woman and kills women. It was a little bit about how half the (Saudi) society is absent because they have no identity."

Early in Mansour's media career, her father received "a lot of emails and letters telling him how dare you let your daughter appear on TV and direct films and do unhonourable stuff! He never listened to the social pressure. Social pressure is very difficult in Saudi Arabia, especially on men. They are supposed to be the guardians, and they are the protectors and have to control their women."

For British viewers, Wadjda, for all its charm and its eventually upbeat ending, can't help but seem like a piece of dystopian sci-fi. Mansour is depicting a society that we can't even begin to understand: a place where women don't drive and aren't even allowed to eat with their menfolk. In one striking scene, the young girls learning sacred texts are told that "during their time of the month," they aren't permitted to touch the Koran.

Mansour's affection for her homeland is self-evident. She is at pains to point out that her film isn't intended as a polemical assault on patriarchy in Saudi Arabia. Rather, it was crafted to be both enjoyable and uplifting. "I want to do stories that are touching and inspiring. I really want to work within the system in Saudi Arabia. I don't want to be an outcast. Saudi Arabia is a very conservative place. I want to do films that make them (the authorities) more relaxed, more tolerant and make them respect women more."

Another point she is keen to stress is that men are victims of the patriarchal system as well as women. They are locked into a pattern of thought and behaviour that leads to the kind of domestic dysfunction that Wadjda depicts.

Like the presence of the Saudi female athletes at the London Olympics, Mansour's film is surely a harbinger of social change. A crowdpleaser, lyrical, tender and funny by turns, Wadjda won over audiences in Venice and looks bound to do the same in Saudi Arabia, too. Even if the film can't be shown in Saudi cinemas, Mansour is confident it will eventually be seen on DVD and TV.

"It is a great moment," the director reflects. "It's very conservative still; it's very difficult. I am not saying that Saudi Arabia is heaven for a woman but I am saying now that people want to hear from Saudi women. So Saudi women need to believe in themselves and break the tradition."

'Wadjda' will screen at the London Film Festival, 10 to 21 October

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