Haifaa Al-Mansour on ‘Wadjda’

Sophia Satchell Baeza

On first look, you wouldn’t imagine that Wadjda, a charming coming-of-age drama about a young girl who dreams of riding her own bike, would hold so many implications for the state of Arab cinema.

But as the first Saudi Arabian female film director, Haifaa Al-Mansour has also wrote and directed its first film entirely on location in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Wadjda (12-year-old Waad Mohammed) wants a green bike so she can race with her best mate Abdullah (Abdullahman Al Gohani). Her mother (Reem Abdullah), along with much of the ultra-conservative society around her, strongly disproves, seeing it as immoral and against Islamic principles. It is only very recently, in April 2013, that Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women riding bicycles, although only in controlled areas. Wadjda’s entrepreneurial streak sees her selling friendship bracelets and memorizing the Koran in order to get the dirhams she needs to buy that bike.

Born one of 12 children to the Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, Haifaa Al-Mansour fostered her love of film from her liberal parents and lots of Hollywood blockbusters. In a country with no public cinemas (they were closed down in the 1970s after the assassination of King Faisal), this was all she could get her hands on. With her first feature film Wadjda, Al-Mansour actually got backing from King Abdullah, even if she still had to direct a lot of the scenes from inside a van, to avoid offending the public.

We talked to her about her inspiration for the film, the filmmaking process and how she found her young star.

GFW: This feels like a very personal film. How did the story emerge? Did you draw from childhood experience?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Yes. I tried to bring in the world I lived in. I come from a small town in Saudi [like Wadjda]. Except I didn’t want a bicycle, I wanted to make a film. I based her a lot on me. I tried to make it like a documentary without interfering much, based on experiences I knew.

Yes, Wadjda has the realist feel of a documentary. I see you also work in that format in your short documentary “Women Without Shadows” (2006) [about women in the Gulf who don’t wear the orthodox full body garment]. Which medium do you prefer?
Documentaries are amazing, but they’re troublemakers. Features are also challenging, but they’re such a rewarding experience: to tell a story and see people enjoy it and laugh. It was really more of a jump between the documentary and the feature for the financing. You want a feature to have a proper distribution. To have all the things and it’s difficult. It wasn’t easy to get all the right people attached to the work.

How did you come across your film's lead – Waad Mohammed? What were you looking for in Wadjda?
I was looking for [someone like] my niece. I wanted to find her. Waad came in wearing jeans and trainers with the hair and all that. It was amazing to see her waiting for her turn. I asked her to sing, and she sung the whole song [a Justin Bieber track] with all the lyrics. But she couldn’t answer in English! The typical thing in Saudi is that people are so into pop culture and all that, but they’re very traditional.

How did you go about casting for actors, especially the young women who feature in the film? It must have been difficult.
It all depends on word of mouth. On someone who knows someone. And then they are lots of small production companies. It was difficult trying to convince her parents. They come from a very conservative background, where there’s not much respect for that kind of work. She’s young, she’s still a child. But they are excited about it too.

The relationship between Wadjda and her mother [played by Saudi TV actress Reem Abdullah] is particularly moving. Was it hard to develop the rapport between the two?
Yes, it’s extremely touching: the solidarity. The mother was a woman in love who wanted to do everything by the book. That was not a defeat for her. You find pride and you find dignity in just praising and continuing the journey. They were both great actresses and they really connected. I was so privileged working with them.

Wadjda’s green bicycle plays a key role in the film, particularly as it is a cultural taboo there for women to ride bikes. Why did you choose the bike as a central part of the narrative?
Because it is poetic. It’s a cool device, as it’s very cinematic. Like all the Italian neorealist films. It’s about freedom of mobility, feeling on top of one’s destiny. It’s also not so intimidating. The style suited my film.

Wadjda is a real achievement in filmmaking. What was it like filming in Saudi Arabia – can you tell us more about the difficulties in the filmmaking process?
Well, we had such limited time and such a limited budget. We were going against everything. Saudi Arabia is not used to film and there was no casting agency. There was a lot of missing stuff and we had to re-establish things. When I go outside I have to be in a van. I have to talk to everyone with walkie-talkies because I’m not supposed to talk with men. In more conservative areas, they didn’t want us to be there.

The whole culture is also based on television. They work different hours. They work late and continue to work all night. So we were limited to certain hours. It was not the same working model. Every hour we lose is a burden. We had to let go of some scenes, and rewrite the script. Sometimes you enjoy them a little bit, and then get rid of them in the editing room. But this is different. I’ve learnt it’s very important to be economic.

Do you think you would have got a different film if it weren’t for the working conditions?
It’s hard to say if it would have been a different film. But no, I think it didn’t compromise the story. I think a film goes through stages, through filming and editing. Films transform through the process.

The film's ending is poignant and full of hope. Do you see the situation changing for young women like Wadjda and her mother? I thought the relationship between Wadjda and her young male friend was especially promising.
Of course! I think it is about this, about the future. It’s not about only women, about being the perfect woman, but about being the perfect man. It’s also about the men who love them, about compassion. About people coming together and making things work.

How have you found the film's reception away from home?
It’s amazing. Sometimes you write something and you just don’t know. It is such an incredible feeling when people laugh, and they get touched when you want them to. I come from a specific culture, and I wanted to open the culture up a little bit and have people see what it is like. I feel extremely good when I see people can get invested in it.

What is the situation like for seeing this in Saudi Arabia?
We’ll be releasing the film on DVD and showing it on TV. And it will be shown in Kuwait and Bahrain and Dubai.

What’s been Waad’s response to the film?
She’s enjoying all the attention. She was in Munich, and at Venice Film Festival. It was her first time ever outside of Saudi – and it was amazing to see her blossom and enjoy that. She did a great job, she deserves all the attention.

Do you have any plans in the pipeline?
I still want to work in Rotana [the film production company of Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal], but nothing yet. Its very stressful writing – you don’t know how people will get it.

'Wadjda' is screening at One World Media Festival on 8 November. For more info, head over here

All images via Soda Pictures

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