Female director takes on strict Saudi social mores

BY Zachary Green  September 15, 2013 at 1:00 PM EDT

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The film world is abuzz about a new movie making the rounds at major film festivals. “Wadjda” is the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country that not only lacks a major film industry, but also has practically no public movie theaters. And, the director from this historically conservative country, Haifaa al-Mansour, is a woman.

The director of “Women Without Shadows”, a short documentary on Saudi women’s issues, Mansour and her producers spent five years trying to find investors for her film, a wait that stands in stark contrast to the six weeks it took to shoot the film. During that time, Mansour had to dance around Saudi social mores, sometimes directing outdoor scenes inside a van with a walkie-talkie radio in order to avoid the public scandal of a woman giving orders to a male film crew.

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The title character of “Wadjda” is a 10-year-old girl who wants to buy a bicycle, despite the disapproval of her mother and the headmistress of her school. In an effort to raise the money, the normally rambunctious girl enters a Koran-reciting contest, convincing her teacher and mother that she has become a pious and devoted student in the process. The film has received glowing reviews and has been gaining notoriety in the film festival world.

The screening of “Wadjda” at the Tribeca Film Festival this year was attended by Queen Noor of Jordan and was followed by a discussion moderated by women’s rights activist, Gloria Steinem.

The film may be one more sign of social change in Saudi Arabia.

In January, King Abdullah decreed that women would be allowed to sit on the Shura, the ruling head-of-state’s advisory council. He also recently said that women would be allowed to vote in municipal elections in 2015. In a turn of events relevant to the film, in July, women gained the right to ride bicycles, although only in restricted areas, fully clothed, and in the presence of a male chaperone.

Though the advance of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia remains halting, the country is championing its first feature-length film.

The seven-person Saudi nominating committee has made “Wadjda” its first-ever submission to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category in this year’s Academy Awards. Yet even the submission process was not without challenges.

Since conservative clerics have banned movie theaters in the Saudi kingdom, the nominating committee had to fly to the Dubai International Film Festival in order to screen the film.

Currently, the movie is only available on DVD and on TV in Saudi Arabia. It is playing in the US in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles.