The production lost two days to sandstorms. The crew faced a last-minute scramble when the nervous owner of a mall changed his mind about allowing filming there. Some days locals chased the cameras away; other days they brought platters of lamb and rice to the set, and asked to be extras.
Meanwhile, the director hid in a van, speaking to her cast via walkie-talkie.
In Saudi Arabia, where driving a car is prohibited for women, a 39-year-old mother of two has done something remarkable: written and directed what her distributor believes is the first feature film shot entirely in the ultraconservative kingdom.
Haifaa Al Mansour is the director of Wadjda, a drama about a plucky 10-year-old girl who enrolls in a Quran recitation competition in order to win money for a bicycle she’s forbidden by law to ride.
The film, which won the Best Arab Feature prize and a Best Actress for its protagonist at the Dubai International Film Festival last year, has since been travelling to some of the world’s biggest festivals. And now, Al Mansour has added another feather to her cap: Her film has been selected as Saudi Arabia’s official submission for the Oscar’s foreign-language category. It marks the first time the country has submitted a film for Academy Award consideration.
“We are very proud of the film as an authentic representation of our country and culture and are very pleased to see the themes and story of the film resonate with audiences well beyond our borders,” Sultan Al Bazie, head of Saudi Arabia’s Society for Culture and Arts and chairman of the nominating committee, said on Friday.
The movie is also the first narrative feature from Al Mansour, who grew up in a small Saudi town and shot the film covertly on the streets of the capital, Riyadh.
Al Mansour has said the film was an attempt to offer a political comment on the realities of women’s lives in the country.
“I didn’t want to make a movie about women being raped or stoned,” Al Mansour said in an interview in Beverly Hills in June. “For me it is the everyday life, how it’s hard. For me, it was hard sometimes to go to work because I cannot find transportation. Things like that build up and break a woman.”
Like her young protagonist, Al Mansour’s own story is one of feminine moxie.
In a protest of the country’s ban on women behind the wheel, she drove herself to her wedding in a golf cart. Because women in Saudi Arabia can’t mingle publicly with men outside their families, she shot her movie covertly on the streets of Riyadh. With movie theatres banned, she screened Wadjda in two foreign embassies and a cultural centre.
Petite, self-assured, wearing white high-tops and blue nail polish, Al Mansour is modern in both her fashion and bearing. She speaks English quickly and colloquially, dropping frequent “you knows” into conversation. And she isn’t afraid to counter misperceptions about her homeland, as when she gently corrected Bill Maher for calling Makkah the Saudi capital during a recent appearance on his HBO show.
Laced with empathy and humour, Wadjda is a quietly provocative portrait of a culture in which men wear the traditional white kandoura but carry the latest iPads and women hold important jobs as doctors and news anchors but have yet to vote in an election.
The eighth of 12 children of a poet, Al Mansour grew up in a home that she describes as nurturing for a little girl.
“My family is very traditional, but my parents are very supportive, very kind,” she said. “I never felt I can’t do things because I’m a woman.”
Though movie theatres have been shuttered in Saudi Arabia for decades for religious reasons, Al Mansour said her father, like others, often rented VHS tapes at Blockbuster for the family to watch – she grew up on Jackie Chan movies, Bollywood productions, Egyptian cinema and Disney animated films. “In small-town Saudi, there is nothing to do. You don’t get to exercise your emotions because nothing much is happening, you know?” she said. “So to see people falling in love and fighting, it’s so powerful, you see beyond your small town.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, she returned to Saudi Arabia but quickly felt stymied.
“Going back to Saudi as a young woman, trying to assert yourself ... you have all those ideas ... and all of a sudden you realise because you are a woman you are not heard,” she said. “It was such a frustrating moment in my life. It was as if you are screaming in a vacuum.”
The idea of women holding jobs still unnerves some Saudi men – writer Abdullah Mohammad Daoud recently encouraged his more than 97,000 Twitter followers to sexually harass female grocery store clerks to intimidate women from working.
Al Mansour decided to make a film with her siblings serving as cast and crew, a thriller about a male serial killer who hides under a black abaya.
Her work – two more shorts, a documentary and a stint hosting a talk show for a Lebanese network – focused largely on the untold stories of Saudi women.
In 2005, at a US embassy screening of her documentary Women Without Shadows Al Mansour met her future husband, American diplomat Bradley Neimann.
They now have two children, 2 and 5, and live in Bahrain, where Neimann works for the State Department.
When her husband worked in Australia, Al Mansour pursued a master’s in film studies at the University of Sydney, and wrote the script that became Wadjda.
The story was inspired by her niece, who has tamped down her rambunctious personality to fit into Saudi norms.
“She’s feisty, she has a great sense of humour, she’s a hustler,” Al Mansour said.
“But my brother now is a little traditional, so she is now more what you’d expect from a Saudi girl. ... I felt that is such a loss of potential.”
When Al Mansour’s script for Wadjda won an award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, it caught the eye of the co-head of the independent film group at United Talent Agency.
“I thought, ‘Wow, a woman writer from Saudi Arabia won?’” Rena Ronson said. “I had to meet her. She was so open and tenacious and smart.”
Over the next two years Ronson helped Al Mansour secure financing for her film, which cost a little less than $2.5 million (Dh9.1 million).
The primary obstacle, as far as many potential Middle Eastern producers were concerned, was Al Mansour’s desire to shoot in Saudi Arabia.
The production finally won the tacit approval of the Saudi government – one of its backers is Rotana Group, an entertainment company primarily owned by Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal. Another major financier is the German company Razor Film.
Finding actors was another hurdle. A week before she was scheduled to start shooting, Al Mansour still hadn’t cast her title character when 12-year-old Waad Mohammad entered the room in blue jeans, with headphones clapped over her ears. Singing along to Justin Bieber, she won over Al Mansour with her sweet singing voice and tomboyish style.
The movie’s half-German, half-Saudi crew worked around the rhythms of Saudi life, using cellphone apps that alerted them of the five daily prayer calls. The Germans carried notebooks; the Saudis relied on oral planning.
On the first day of shooting, a start time of 7.20 am came and went. “I don’t know what we were thinking,” said German producer Roman Paul. “I don’t think 7.20 exists in Saudi time. We Germans learned to relax, and the Saudis learned that there is a benefit to doing things at a certain time.”
Despite tension on the set – both from disapproving observers and from the German and Saudi crews learning to work together – Al Mansour was buoyant, Paul said.
“She’s very fast in overcoming new difficulties, and in an upbeat spirit,” Paul said.
Last summer Wadjda premiered at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, earning praise for Al Mansour’s subtle direction and a US release from Sony Pictures Classics which handled the Oscar-winning 2011 Iranian drama A Separation, about the dissolution of a marriage.
Sony Classics has been showing the film to noted feminists – Gloria Steinem and Queen Noor of Jordan both attended screenings .
“A Separation was such an eye-opener to me in the sense that there were people questioning whether the film went too specific into the Iranian culture,” said Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of the Sony unit.
“But if the overall story has a universal appeal, in Wadjda it’s about parents and kids and restrictions and freedom, that’s something we can all relate to.”
(With inputs by tabloid! staff)