Saudi's First Female Film Director Says Women Aren't Victims

Sep 12, 2013
Originally published on September 13, 2013 12:17 pm

"I wasn't trying to make a 'loud' film," Saudi Arabia's first female film director tells NPR's Michel Martin.

Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadjda is the first full-length feature film to be shot and produced in Saudi Arabia, and it lifts the veil on life in the kingdom.

Wadjda tells the very universal story of a spunky 10-year-old girl by that name, and her wish for bicycle.

"I am making a film in Saudi Arabia — and that is controversial enough," Al Mansour says, noting that she didn't want to make big statements about the culture clashes. "I don't want people to feel offended back home."

And if Al Mansour did not intend for her film to be loud in impact, neither were her movements in making it: "It was really difficult to shoot in Saudi," she says. "I'm really proud that I was able to shoot the film entirely in Riyadh.

"The country is segregated and men and women are not supposed to mix together. I had to film from a van, and I had a walkie-talkie, and a monitor, and I was always confined in that space."

Saudi Arabia is also not as closed as it once was, Al Mansour notes. "There is some room for women, and room for arts, and I felt, it's such a rewarding feeling to be able to bring film into Saudi," she says.


Interview Highlights

On becoming Saudi's first woman movie director

I grew up watching a lot of films, and they had so much power, emotional power on me as a kid. In a small town, there is nothing to see, nothing to experience sometimes. And I witnessed life unfolding through film. And when I grew older, and I came back to work in Saudi in early 2000s, I wanted to assert myself in the workplace and everything, and it was hard for me. As a woman, I felt invisible, and it was a low point, so I wanted to make a film just as a therapy.

On creating Wadjda's character

I based her a lot on one of my nieces, who has a great sense of humor, who's a hustler and she's always scheming to earn money somewhere. But my brother became conservative, and she changed. And a lot of the girls I went to school with — and I went to public school — are like that. When they were kids, they had so much to offer to the world, but because the world is very — their families and the small society around them — is very limiting, they gave up so much. And I wanted to make a film that tells them that they shouldn't — that they should be true to themselves and continue, and embrace their potential. And those girls can change the world if they are given the chance and if they believe in themselves.

On finding the actress Waad Mohammed to play Wadjda

She came in late in the auditioning process, around seven weeks before principal shooting, and it was really great when we saw her. She just came, she didn't care. She's wearing her jeans, and she had this spirit, and then we wanted her to sing. And, of course, she sang Justin Bieber ... and she knew the whole song, so I thought she speaks English. I tried to introduce her to the film producers, they're German, and she didn't speak a word of English. It's only what she knew, Justin Bieber songs. And for me that was amazing. It's like, this is how Saudi is, they have access to pop culture, but still they're very traditional.

On what kind of film she wanted to make

I don't want to see women as victims anymore. I feel like it is very important to give them characters that inspire them and give them self-confidence to continue. And for me, also men, I don't want to portray men as the evil, and the oppressors, because it is not real. I think both men and women are trapped in a very conservative society, that sometimes they make decisions that are not based on individual choices, as much as how to be part of the tribe or part of the collective. It is not black and white, the situation, and the film does not neglect where it comes from in terms of women's rights and all that, but it also concentrates on how women are survivors.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. The Middle East has been much in the news these past weeks, what with all the news coming out about Syria, the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the ongoing repercussions from the Arab Spring. But what often gets lost in all the headlines and the news dominated by politicians are the rhythms of everyday life in these countries and the concerns of everyday people. Well, now there's a feature film that lifts the veil on life in Saudi Arabia. The film is called "Wadjda," and it tells a very universal story of a spunky 10-year-old girl by that name and her wish for a bicycle. But Wadjda cannot afford one, so she enters a Quran reading competition at school to try to raise the money herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WADJDA")

(As Wadjda, reading from Quran)

MARTIN: Now this would be a charming coming-of-age story almost anywhere, but in a country that bans movie theaters and places many restrictions on women and girls, including, famously, their freedom to drive, it's nothing short of remarkable. Not to mention the fact that the director is herself a Saudi woman, and Haifaa Al Mansour is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

HAIFAA AL MANSOUR: Oh, no. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations. This is not only your first full-length feature, but as I understand it, we believe it is the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Is that right?

MANSOUR: Yeah, that is correct. It has been a challenge. It was really difficult to shoot in Saudi. It's like I'm really proud that I was able to shoot the film entirely in Riyadh.

MARTIN: How did - forgive me, it sounds so simplistic and - but how does a woman director go about making a film in Saudi Arabia, given that women are not permitted to drive, as we said, and there are so many other restrictions on how women present themselves in public? How did you do it?

MANSOUR: Well, it took a lot of work and I had great producers, as well. And yeah, the country is very conservative, and sometimes when we go outside, we film all the outdoors activities because the country is segregated and woman and woman are not supposed to mix together. I had to film from a van, and I had a walkie-talkie and a monitor and I was always confined in that space. But Saudi Arabia now is opening up and there is some room for women and room for arts.

And I felt - it's such a rewarding feeling to be able to bring film into Saudi and just to be - I come from a small town - originally, from a small town in the suburbs of Riyadh, and for me, it was almost like coming home. There was an amazing feeling just to bring that sense of - to enjoy that sense of little bit of openness in Saudi.

MARTIN: You got into film, as you mentioned. you grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia where you're one of 12 children and...

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...How did you become you?

MANSOUR: Oh, I don't know. My family is also very traditional, like, my parents don't speak English or anything. We're very, like, typical, middle-class family, but they're very kind and they allowed me to be what I want to be. But whenever I stood outside, to the society, I knew, exactly, there are so much obstacles that I have to overcome. But I loved film since I was little and I remember going to the video store and of course women are not allowed because it's not, like, the very decent place for women to be. So I will stay outside with my abaya and ask the guy to bring the catalog and I will check the titles I want.

So I grew up with watching a lot of films and they had so much power, emotional power, on me as a kid. In a small town, there's nothing to see, nothing to experience, sometimes, and I witnessed life unfolding through film. And when I grew older and I came back to work in Saudi in early 2000s, I wanted to assert myself in the workplace and everything and it was hard for me. As a woman, I felt invisible, and it was low point. So I wanted to make a film just as a therapy, and my brother holding the camera and my sister, the light. So - and I applied for a small competition in Abu Dhabi and got accepted. And they called me with the film and they sent me a ticket and I went and they told me, you are the first female filmmaker, and it gave me a voice. And since then, I just continue with what's natural, what came after.

MARTIN: You've lived in Cairo. You live in Bahrain now. You're in the U.S. at the moment with the film.

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Presumably, you could have filmed it somewhere else, like Arizona, you know, or someplace like that. Why was it so important to you to film in Saudi Arabia?

MANSOUR: I wanted to bring a film that is - brings a slice of life, has authenticity and a true representation of the country. It is easier to film - I don't know about Arizona - but it would...

MARTIN: I just...

MANSOUR: ...Be...

MARTIN: I was just...

MANSOUR: ...Would have been easier...

MARTIN: Just an example.

MANSOUR: I know, but it would have been easier to film, for example, in Dubai or places that are more open, more tolerant for art. But I felt Riyadh was a great place and there is infrastructure for TV in Riyadh and a lot of people just leave and go work in, for example, Bahrain or Dubai because it's easier. But I felt it is very important to support the industry there and to make a true film about Saudi. And it also, there is no imagery coming from Saudi Arabia. I thought maybe people would be interested to know how the country looks like.

MARTIN: I think that's true. I think it is. And so can you just tell me a little bit more about "Wadjda." Tell me a little bit more about how you saw her?

MANSOUR: When I was writing "Wadjda," I based her a lot on one of my nieces who has a great sense of humor, who was a hustler. And she's always scheming to earn money somewhere. But my brother became conservative and she changed. And a lot of the girls I went to school with, and I went to public school, are like that. Like they - when they were kids, they had so much to offer to the world, but because the world is very - their families and the small society around them is very limiting. They gave up so much. And I wanted to make a film that tells them that they shouldn't. That they should be true to themselves and continue and embrace their potential. And they - those girls can change the world if they are given the chance and if they believe in themselves.

MARTIN: Was it difficult to find actresses willing to be filmed? I think that many people do understand that men usually do not see women with their hair uncovered, I mean, especially not women to whom they are unrelated. In fact, there's a storyline involving this very issue of women a who's - a young girl who's kind of found to have been a little too close to a man that she's not already related to, and this is a scandal. So was it hard to find actresses? In fact, I think many people will note, when the film comes out, there are some powerful performances by Waad Muhammed as Wadjda, the young girl, but also her mother...

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Reem Abdullah. Was it hard to find actresses?

MANSOUR: Well, yeah. It was hard, of course, to find females who would act, but thanks to TV again. So Reem Abdullah is, like, one of the biggest TV's stars in Saudi. And so all the adults in the film, they made already their decision to challenge the traditional society and be in entertainment business and to be out. But it was harder to find Waad Muhammed because it's hard to convince her parents and it's about women - it's about empowering women and all that. But we saw a lot of girls, and we had sort of, like, a lot of the word-of-mouth because there is no casting agencies. And somebody knew someone and someone knew someone and all that. But she came in, like, late in the auditioning process, around seven weeks before principle shooting, and was really great when we saw her. She just came. She didn't care. She was wearing, like, her jeans, and she had this spirit. And then we wanted her to sing. And, of course, she sang Justin Bieber.

MARTIN: She sang a Justin Bieber song?

MANSOUR: Yeah, and she knew the whole song. So I thought she speaks English, and I tried to introduce her to the film producers and their German, and she didn't speak a word of English. It's only what she knew was just Justin Bieber songs. And for me that was amazing. It is, like, this is how Saudi is. They have access to pop culture, to stuff, but still they're very traditional.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Haifaa Al Mansour. We're talking about her new film "Wadjda." It is believed to be the first full-length feature film filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, and she is the first female film director from Saudi Arabia. And the film deals very much with the world of, you know, girls and women, but, you know, when you say it that way, it sounds like this kind of, like, you know, forgive me, National Geo documentary, which it is not, which it is not. I mean, the story is this little girl wants a bike. But in the course of so doing, you find out that many people believe girls shouldn't even ride a bicycle...

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And it also shows a number of things, like how it is to not be able to drive and what you have to do when you can't drive, but you still need to work. And there's another story line about Wadjda's mother, then her father. They clearly love each other, but her father is being - I'm not sure if he's being pressured to - do you want...

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...There's pressure - is it - do you think he's being pressured to take a second wife in order to bear a son? Talk a little about that.

MANSOUR: Yeah, of course I think he's pressured, and, for me, I wanted to tell a story about - it's a story about women, of course and Saudi Arabia and how hard it is. But it's more about how if we believe in ourselves, we can change the situation. Of how, like, we need to embrace a dream and follow it to the end and work hard and just never give up. And I felt it's a message that might resonate with people now back home. I don't want to see women as victim anymore.

I feel like it is very important to give them characters that inspire them and give themselves confidence to continue, and, for me, also men. I don't want to portray men as, like, the evil and the oppressors because it is not real. I think both men and women are trapped in a very conservative society that, sometimes, they take decisions that are not based on individual choices, as much as how to be part of the tribe or part of the collective. It is not black and white, the situation. And the film does not neglect where it comes from, in terms of women's rights and all that. But it also concentrates on how women are survivors and how they can really push and change things if they believe in themselves without - and I wasn't trying to make a loud film. I wanted to make a film that is emotional and that touches people.

MARTIN: You weren't trying to make a loud film, you say? Yeah.

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. Like...

MANSOUR: Like, I wasn't trying to make...

MARTIN: ...What would be a loud film? Like...

MANSOUR: Like, bad clashes with the culture and all that. I am making a film in Saudi Arabia, and that is controversial enough and I don't want people to feel offended back home. I want them to see the film and feel that they see themselves, and they open up and become more tolerant and accept art. So that is why, when I was writing, I tried to write a film that maintains my voice about empowering women, embracing higher values in life, like how art should be for me. But still, like, not clash with people and make them just reject the film altogether.

MARTIN: You know, there are some really fascinating characters in there. I mean, obviously, Wadjda is just delightful. I mean, I think many of us with daughters that age will instantly recognize her with her high-top sneakers and her bracelets and her various schemes to kind of raise money beyond her allowance. But there are also some characters I think that might be really surprising to people, like the school mistress - or the head of school at her girls' school is amazing.

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, she wears designer heels and designer clothes, and yet she tells the girls not to raise their voices in the hearing of men because, what - is it - what is it? Your voice is your nakedness.

MANSOUR: Yeah. For me, also, I wanted to show that women are sometimes the gatekeepers and really reinforce values that are part of the society, maybe because they think it is right and it is what it should be done. And again, women are not innocent. You shouldn't say, like, women are only victims. It is, like, women, sometimes, they want to keep things the way they are. They don't want to break away. They want to reinforce things and keep them - yeah - from changing.

MARTIN: And they're not all advocating for change. I think that women are not all on the barricades, you know, advocating for change...

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: But, you know, I wanted to ask you something, though, as we mentioned, there's another storyline. It's not just that Wadjda wants the bicycle, but that her father is under pressure to marry a second wife to bear a son. But I mean, the science of that is completely ridiculous, as I think most people with minimal science understand that it is not the woman who determines whether a male child is born or not, and I wonder if you - when you have something like that, something that is so easily disproven with a hundred-year-old science and that's part of the film, I can imagine where a lot of people will walk away from it thinking, these people really backward.

MANSOUR: Oh, no.

MARTIN: I don't care how much Internet they have. I don't care how many game systems they have. This is really backward, and I just wondered, what you thought is about that.

MANSOUR: Well, it is very traditional. It is a very traditional society, but it is not, like, about being backward. It is about clinging to tradition. It's not accepting change, and sometimes, yes, things are proven scientifically, but you don't give in to them because your values are different and stuff like that. And - so, yeah, it is about how to move away from that, and, for me, that is why I wanted a bicycle as a center of this movie.

It is of course because of "The Bicycle Thief" and all those movies and all the cinematic heritage that comes with it, but also because, for me, a bicycle is a modern concept, like being on top of one's destiny and it's about acceleration and about movement and the freedom of movement and all that, yet it's a toy. It's not intimidating, and this is the heart of modernity versus what we have in Saudi sometimes - is, like, the flat screens and the cars and amazing buildings, but I think people still, at heart, they are very traditional. And, yeah, modernity, still there is, like - there is tension between modernity and tradition still in Saudi.

MARTIN: I cannot - I cannot ruin the ending. I cannot - I cannot give it away. I will not be a spoiler, but I do want to ask, should we be happy or sad?

MANSOUR: No, it's happy. It's a happy film.

MARTIN: OK.

MANSOUR: I wouldn't say it's a happy film, but it's a film that is hopeful and doesn't take things for granted. It is about just, as a person, you need to be happy and have a dream and work hard to achieve that dream.

MARTIN: Well, I don't want to spoil it, again, but just in the world outside of the film that there have been some changes. Women in Saudi Arabia - just this past April, women are now allowed to ride bicycles in public...

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...But only in restricted recreational areas. But a couple of weeks ago, there was a new law passed to protect women, children and domestic staff against domestic abuse. And as you said many times, this is a quiet film. It's not about, you know, big issues. You're an artist, not an activist, but when you look at these kinds of things, do you feel that in your lifetime that women in Saudi Arabia will be able to live the way that women in other parts of the Arab world live, which is being able to drive and vote?

MANSOUR: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

MARTIN: Do you think that's going to happen?

MANSOUR: I thought you were saying in the West, but in the Arab world, yes, definitely.

MARTIN: No, I mean, in the Arab world. I mean...

MANSOUR: Yeah, no.

MARTIN: ...Saudi Arabia is the only place where women can't drive...

MANSOUR: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I mean, do you think that they'll at least be able to enjoy the same freedoms, like, that people enjoy in Bahrain, like to vote...

MANSOUR: Oh, yeah, definitely.

MARTIN: ...For example.

MANSOUR: Saudi Arabia is changing a lot, and it still doesn't - like, the changes you mentioned are very small, but they change the mindset. You cannot imagine how people are conservative in Saudi and very tribal and I sympathize with them because it is a little bit threatening to embrace a change all of a sudden and see Internet and the overflow of information and all the young generation - it is different. The world is so much different.

And sometimes I go to visit my mother. Like - and my mother still lives in a small town in Saudi, and I see my extended family, which is very conservative. They change a lot and they are more relaxed, more tolerant, and I feel like the general atmosphere in Saudi is not the same anymore. It is not - it used to be very tense and people against art and music and all that, and now they're willing to enjoy a little bit of that. So, yeah.

MARTIN: Do you feel now that you're out touring with the film - I mean, by intention, it's inside out. You know, you want to tell the story of a family, a child, a family in Saudi Arabia, from Saudi Arabia, as a Saudi yourself, but now that you're out in the world with it, I wonder if you feel like you have to defend the country. Do you feel - you know...

MANSOUR: No.

MARTIN: No?

MANSOUR: No, I don't feel like I need to defend the country or anything, but I feel like - I think Saudi Arabia should change when it comes to women and they should allow more rights and all that. But I am really happy to see the change that is happening in Saudi and all that. And for me, it was not - it was not defending, as much as explaining and just sharing my life and maybe explaining how it is to be in a society like Saudi, because it is an interesting society. It's very closed. It's very rich. There's lots of ideologies, and it's a society in motion and it's changing. And it's an amazing place for me to tell stories, also, so...

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

MANSOUR: Oh, thank you so much.

MARTIN: I can't wait to see what's next.

MANSOUR: I'll let you know for sure.

MARTIN: Haifaa Al Mansour is the director of "Wadjda." It comes out tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. It opens nationwide the following Friday. Haifaa Al Mansour, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MANSOUR: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.