Under any circumstances, the release of a debut film as engaging, confident and moving as Wadjda would be a cause for celebration, but Wadjda was not made under the usual circumstances. This is a film from Saudi Arabia, a country with no cinemas, and it has been written and directed by a woman in a country where women don't even have the right to drive a car. Haifaa al-Mansour's film tells the deceptively modest tale of a independent young girl who desperately wants to own a bicycle, and through this story it exposes the everyday oppression faced by women in Saudi society. The release of Wadjda feels like a watershed moment in Arabian cinema, and I met Haifaa al-Mansour to discuss it.
Can you tell me how you first discovered cinema?
I was one of 12 siblings. My parents are very much Saudis so we have this big family, and I think they wanted to show us something just to keeps us calm, so that was the first time I got introduced to films. As a little kid I grew up in a very small town in Saudi Arabia and I saw the world through films, they taught me that there were other things like great mountains and rivers that we didn't have in Saudi. They were not intellectual films, they were all mainstream Hollywood, Bollywood and Egyptian cinema, which is all that we could access in Saudi Arabia as we didn't have a culture for film or art in general. But they had a power, these films, especially the American films that took me on an emotional journey.
Did any of those films influence your directorial style? In Wadjda your filmmaking is very simple and observational.
To shoot a film in Saudi I feel it has to be this way. Saudi Arabia is a very closed country, people don't know how other people live or the politics inside the home, so I wanted to just put a camera in there and let people experience that and I felt that neo-realism cinema was the best approach. I don't pretend to be philosophical, and if you can bring in reality and show how it is then the complexity is already there, you don't have to reinvent it.
Is that why it was important for you to tell this story through the eyes of a child?
It is common sense, you know? When we grow up we lose our fresh eye to reality and when things are wrong we often just accept them. When you are little you have this kind of innocent questioning where you don't accept when things are not right because you have not yet been programmed that way. Of course I wanted to bring that fresh eye to Saudi Arabia because it can be really crazy [laughs]. I don't really mean crazy, just different. There are things that don't make sense and we really need to put them in context.
I was struck by the contrasts in the film. We see Saudi girls having to conform to the codes of society when they're out in public, but when at home we see Wadjda in her bedroom listening to pop songs. The difference from one side of the front door to the other is remarkable.
Yeah, absolutely. Privacy in Saudi Arabia is a big deal and there is a huge difference between what is on the streets and what is inside the homes, especially when it comes to women, because women can exist semi-normally behind closed doors but outside they have to be covered and cannot express themselves. But I feel now that Saudi Arabia is changing a lot, because young girls don't want to be put into that rigid form. They want to break away, they want to find their own voices, they have the internet, they have Twitter. Waad Mohammed, the main actress, she came to the audition and was rocking an 80s style, with this great hair and jacket and Hi-Tops, and I could not believe it. She doesn't speak a word of English but she still listens to Justin Bieber and is part of this big world. Many of the old boundaries aren't there anymore.
How does the Saudi government feel about those disappearing boundaries?
I think they want to push the country towards modernisation. They want moderate voices. They are of course still part of the Arab world and I understand the politics there, but they do not want extremists. They are starting a lot of kids on scholarships, I'm sure you have seen a lot of them in London or in the US, and they want them to be exposed to the world, to be accepted and not be part of this hostility towards other cultures. So they are trying to push things forward and not to maintain the status quo.
I guess that tension between the old and new ways can be seen in how you shot the film. You were granted permission to make the film by King Abdullah, but you still had to hide out of sight when on location.
In Saudi Arabia there are TV dramas happening all the time. They shoot TV series, and they have no problem with the authorities because they get permission, but it's the conservatives who tell them "You can't go there." The people who live in this conservative culture think that TV is corrupt and women should not appear on TV, they should stay at home. So if they don't accept that, then for sure they won't accept a woman coming into their neighbourhood to make a film. Other neighbourhoods are more tolerant, but yes, Saudi Arabia is still a conservative country and it's hard for them to see a woman working. So while I wanted to make the film I also wanted to respect the culture, because the ultimate goal is just to make a film, not to create conflict with people. I want Saudi people to see this film and understand that I am trying to give them a human face, through the story of this little girl.
Do you feel that positive changes are now being made in Saudi Arabia?
There is a gap between religion and culture, and people are changing a lot. Five years ago, people were so strongly against any kind of culture or entertainment, and now the percentage of people shifting towards wanting films and theatre is increasing day by day. A lot of it is down to young people, I think Saudi Arabia is 65% or 70% young, so those people are responsible for making a change.
As well as this film, you have made TV programmes and short films tackling the issues of a woman's place in Saudi society. Is it important for you to be a feminist filmmaker?
I don't try to be a feminist, but if I am a feminist then that's good! [laughs] I don't try to make a film for a message, I make a film for a story. But for sure, women's rights and women's issues in Saudi Arabia is a big thing, and as a woman living there I want to tell stories about myself and my sisters, and I want the situation to change. I have a daughter and I want her to have a better life, I want people to respect her, I want her to feel she has ownership of things, and I feel Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go for that to happen. Women still need to fight more, to stick together, to voice their demands, and making films is one of the ways to do that. But I just want to make films that I feel and relate to, stories from my world, rather than making a film that is feminist.
Do you think the exposure of this film will embolden other female Saudi artists to make their voices heard?
Not only female artists, because Saudi Arabia's conservative culture can affect men and women. For example, if a man falls in love it can be hard for him to be with that person, so I would love to see all young people to feeling strong enough to make a film. It takes a lot of courage to make a film, to put yourself out there, especially in a place like Saudi Arabia which has such peer pressure and is so tribal and collective. It is very hard for someone to think as an individual.
As a very prominent and outspoken Saudi woman, what kind of reputation do you have among the public at home?
It's a very mixed reaction. [laughs] A lot of people like and respect what I'm doing and have liberal voices, they are pro-women and want to see people like me coming forward and speaking for them. But a lot of people are still very conservative and they don't like that I appear on newspapers or TV talking for women. I am a moderate voice so I feel that there is a little bit of respect there, because I am also trying to engage them in a dialogue, I don't try to push them aside. I respect them and I want them to respect me so we can talk, and we can influence each other. I'm sure a lot of people think women like me threaten their society or their values, but that's not the case.
How do you go about making a film in a country with no cinema culture?
That was really the hardest thing. I am very grateful to the producers from Germany, Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner, because without them the film would never have been done. I had to co-produce with Europe because we don't have cinemas in Saudi Arabia, and it is very hard to find funding in that unique place, they were very reluctant to put money into the film. So it was very hard, and nobody believed that we would be able to go to Saudi Arabia and shoot there, they felt it was a huge risk. But having producers who believed in a first-time director and were willing to take that risk with such commitment makes me feel I was so lucky to find these producers. We went through some very weak moments when the film was in danger of not happening, and it got saved at the last moment. Because Saudi Arabia does not have a film history people would rather fund films from Egypt or Lebanon because they are more established, they know how to market the films and where to put it, and for us it's a bigger risk. We went up against that a lot, and if this film is a success I hope it encourages more production and funding in more local talent.
And what about the actors? Were they a mixture of professional and amateur actors?
Most of the actors didn't have any experience and it was very hard to find actors. For a lot of people in Saudi Arabia being in front of a camera is very immoral and exposing. We saw a lot of girls but we didn't find many who could capture the spirit, and we were looking for girls who perform in local theatre and Waad was one of those girls, but she never had real acting experience and her learning curve is amazing. From the first day, second day, third day she just knew how to capture the camera and how to give all the emotions. We developed this understanding because it was really hard for me sometimes to direct from inside the van, but if I would just talk to her she would understand, and it was really important that we established this intimate relationship between director and actor. Reem Abdullah, who plays the mother, is a very established TV actress. She is very famous, she's the "it girl" in Saudi. But it required a real transformation from her because TV acting in Saudi is very different from film, and she did an amazing job. It took her a little bit of time in the beginning but after that she really transformed and it was amazing to see how hard she worked in rehearsal. She was crying on the roof for real, I said "Action" and she had real tears, so she gave a lot emotionally and exposed all her feelings. It was an amazing thing for a Saudi woman.
Has Wadjda been shown for audiences in Saudi Arabia?
Not yet. We are hoping to show it on TV for sure and we will try to push it for a cultural screening in the museum, or some kind of screening for the public. We are trying to push it here and there and we'll see how it goes.