That the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia (a country with no commercial theaters) was directed by a woman (in a country where women still famously cannot drive) would have been enough to spark a media firestorm. That the film, Wadjda, which hit U.S. theaters last week, also happens to be good — "a stunningly assured debut," wrote Slate; "sharply observed, deceptively gentle," wrote the New York Times — has made it, and its photogenic director, Haifaa al-Mansour, irresistible.
Mansour’s story about a young Saudi girl’s quest to buy a bike — so she can race her male friend Abdullah — explores the lives and roles of women in one of the most conservative, traditional countries in the Middle East. It introduces us to the rhythms of daily household life in Saudi Arabia, a world that few outsiders ever see.
Mansour spoke to Foreign Policy this week about losing access to locations hours before a shoot, why it was so hard to recruit actors for her film, and the curious relationship between Saudi women and their drivers. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
FP: Why was it so important to you that this film be shot in Saudi Arabia?
HM: I think it is to maintain the authenticity of the film and bring a real representation of the culture. I wanted to bring life as it is and have people peek into it. I don’t think there is any imagery coming from Saudi Arabia. It’s such a closed country. I’m not sure if there are misconceptions. I think there is nothing — no reference point at all.
Riyadh in particular has a TV scene. There was a bit of infrastructure that we could capitalize on and use. It is doable. Why do a film about Saudi outside, if you can do it in Saudi?
FP: You famously had to shoot out of a van, to remain separate from the men you were working with. What other difficulties did you encounter while shooting in Riyadh?
HM: People are not used to it, so they get nervous when we are in their neighborhood. Sometimes we’d lose access to a location. Whenever we were granted access, we just hoped they wouldn’t call us two hours before and tell us not [to come].
But I think a lot of young filmmakers now are reconsidering filming in Saudi. A lot of people leave. They prefer to work in Dubai or Bahrain or Kuwait where it is a little bit more tolerant, more relaxed. But now with the success of this film I feel they understand what it means to have an authentic product.
FP: Did you get a lot of questions when you were filming?
HM: Yeah, people were curious. Some neighborhoods, they want to be extras, they want to act. It depends a lot on the place. In more conservative places they would be really angry, and just want us out — they don’t care what it’s all about.
We tried to respect the laws and the traditions as much as possible. It was very important to me to avoid conflict with the people who are very conservative, they don’t like cinema, they don’t like film. For us it was very important to respect that and we were very aware of our surroundings.
We had Saudi crew who had been doing TV for so long and they know that this is the way they can function: to avoid conflict and to work in certain places.
FP: Can you tell me about the casting process and trying to find women and girls to act in your movie?
HM: When we were trying to fill the roles, it was hard. Every time we found a girl and we think she is right she goes home and has second thoughts, and calls me and says no and we have to look again.
We ask for girls a certain age, but we always get the little ones — it’s hard to get older girls, because most of them become conservative, and then they don’t want to come.
We had lots of auditions, and we found really wonderful girls, amazing, but then they won’t act. They would come here, and give the audition, but then they don’t have the courage to continue. And for me, I was sad for them. Because I knew they wanted to be there but they just could not take that decision. They took the decision to come and do the audition but when it came to, ‘you were chosen,’ they’d freak out.
FP: That’s sad.
HM: That’s very sad, right?
Hopefully it changes with the success this film has had. Now, there is more respect. It’s associated with national pride, and creates some respect for the industry so I hope that changes a little.
A lot of actresses working in Saudi, they know that they are challenging a lot in their society. Performance art is not respected; they know they are standing against that. It is hard for a woman in a place like Saudi that is very tribal, conservative, where a woman’s reputation is everything. To challenge this and do something that you really believe in is very admirable.
It would be easier for a Westernized person, for whom, you know, Saudi Arabia is part of their life only during summer. But when someone comes from a real Saudi background, it’s amazing. That is why I have so much admiration for Reem Abdullah [who plays Wadjda’s mother in the film]. She comes from one of the most conservative tribes in Saudi Arabia, and yet she proved herself. She’s number one on TV. And for a woman like that, I feel — she doesn’t speak English, you know? — she’s very strong. It’s quite inspiring because you can’t imagine what it is like.
FP: Most of the discussion of the film has focused on women in Saudi Arabia, but the film also briefly touches on questions of class, with Iqbal, the driver.
HM: He’s a guest worker, and for me those people, they come with hopes to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a rich place and I feel it should provide more training. They want to change their life, they came for a better life. They came to a rich place, and they get confronted with a different reality — they lack of lot of education, they lack a lot of skills. A lot of people complain about these kind of changes in the society and how the streets are becoming dangerous. That’s more of why we should provide training and give them the better life they aspire to so they contribute bettering to the society.
For me the relationship between women and their drivers is a very funny one, because the women, they think they are the bosses, because they pay the driver, but the driver knows that they cannot go anywhere without them, so it’s always a power struggle between the two.
FP: Any ideas about future projects you’re working on?
HM: I want to write another story that’s set in Saudi, also about young people, but maybe not as young as Wadjda — a little older, trying to find their space in the society. Saudi Arabia is a fascinating place because there’s so much money, and people are becoming modern but still they abide by traditional ideas and so there is always this huge conflict with modernity coming in to that very conservative society. That creates a lot of situations that I think are worth documenting.