With the spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s first woman director Haifaa Al-Mansour, she tells Amal Awad what she is trying to say through her film.
It may seem easy to dismiss the hype around Wadjda, the first film to come out of Saudi Arabia directed by a woman, as being affectionately condescending towards the novelty of it all. After all, the story itself is quite simple: A young girl (well played by newcomer Waad Mohammed) teetering on the edge of puberty wishes to buy a bicycle in a country where little girls don’t ride bikes.
Like the much-heralded Iranian cinema, Wadjda smacks of being a modern-day fable along the lines of Children of Heaven, and a gentle nod to Saudi’s emerging feminist class. Yet, a viewing of this beautiful film demonstrates that it has earned the hype.
It currently enjoys a 99 per cent rating on film criticism hub Rotten Tomatoes. Director Haifaa Al-Mansour shone in an interview with Jon Stewart on his Daily Show, and she even had the strict Saudi kingdom’s blessing to offer Wadjda for consideration in the Oscars foreign film category. Mystifyingly, it missed out on a nomination, but it is arguably an indication of progress, no matter how small.
“I think it’s important to push the country to move forward and accept women’s right. It takes a lot of work, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Haifaa says.
An emphasis on women’s status in Saudi society is an element from which Wadjda does not shy away. Haifaa acknowledges, for example, Saudi women’s bid to drive, saying a lot of people don’t want to see it happen.
“But I think it’s really important to work within the system and push the boundaries a little bit every day, and make it a little bit wider.”
This extends to artistic pursuits, a doorway Haifaa hopes she has opened for aspiring creative women.
“I feel like I made the way for other filmmakers, and I feel that maybe women would be encouraged to take professions that are on the hot line. Women in Saudi Arabia are very shy to take positions like this. They want always to be in privacy – it’s not honourable to be in the newspapers or to talk this loudly.”
It’s not an issue Haifaa seems to struggle with – she’s on a roll. She has signed on to direct A Storm in the Stars, a film about British novelist Mary Shelly, in what will be her first film in the US. Based in Bahrain, where her husband works as a diplomat, Haifaa is also working on her second story set in her homeland.
“I’m trying to figure out something about men now. I think Saudi Arabia’s a conservative place for both men and women, so I’m exploring the other camp, which is difficult because Saudi’s segregated,” she explains.
For now, we have Haifaa’s striking commentary on life in Saudi Arabia for women. In Wadjda, it’s clear that the country’s gender imbalance is a key character, but Haifaa seems very much to be talking about a society without talking down to it.
Haifaa accepts this as praise, and says she said the things she wanted to say in the film.
“Saudi Arabia is a very hard place when it comes to women. Every day they are discriminated against, they’re second-class citizens and all that. For me, I also wanted to make an emotional film, an engaging film. It’s not only to criticise as much as to tell a story, and hope people even back home will appreciate the story and maybe not take things for granted.”
For Haifaa, making a sensitive film was more important than being “over the top”, an approach that would offend and isolate people, turning them away from Wadjda.
“I think the point of film and art at the end of the day is to establish bridges.”
Beside, Haifaa wanted to turn the spotlight on the resilience of Arab women, many of whom are accepting of their lives. In the film, Wadjda’s mother, played beautifully by Reem Abdullah, is a portrait of the Arab mother who is stuck and – at least initially – unable to let her daughter challenge the standards set by society.
Haifaa didn’t want to labour the point, but she acknowledges that it’s a common story. Every Arab woman wants to cook, look beautiful and bend to society’s rules, she says.
“And at the end, they’re not rewarded for all their sacrifices, and they sacrifice a lot of their happiness and independence and stuff like that, just to be accepted.
“For me, for this character [the mother] it’s almost her revolution. She wants to give her daughter what she couldn’t have herself, to stand up to society. I want women just to believe in themselves and not to bend that much.”
Haifaa points to education as being a significant contributor to mounting progress. Saudi Arabia recently upped its domestic violence campaigns, granted women the vote starting in 2015, and generally making more of an effort to inform its female population of health and wellbeing matters (for example, a breast cancer awareness campaign, which unfortunately used men in the promotion). But as Haifaa notes, not everybody uses social media.
“And a lot of people in Saudi who are not on Twitter or Facebook are the majority, and they are the ones who are very conservative and don’t want to see women drive, or women change because that is what they know. It’s very important for education to have a grassroots movement. It will take time.”
Nevertheless, much like the determined Wadjda, Haifaa is willing to invest full effort and time to create change.
“In this time and age, things are changing very rapidly and I’m very hopeful for women to start voting next year, and I think a lot of changes will happen. But I think education is really changing minds before anything else, and it takes a while.”