“Wadjda” - a breakthrough for Saudi women

The first feature movie made in Saudi Arabia breaks new ground in other ways also.
Mary Le Rumeur | Feb 26 2013 | comment  

Director: Haifaa Al Mansour

Starring: Reem Abdullah, Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani

Saudi Arabia is a country where cinemas don't exist and women are hidden behind black veils. Yet this month a film has come onto the screens in France, Wadjda, the first-ever fiction film made in Saudi Arabia – and the director is a woman.

As a child, the eighth in a family of 12 children, Haifaa Al Mansour had watched many movies on the home television. She says: “My father was a lawyer and a poet, and to have some peace and quiet he brought home video cassettes and we were able to watch Bruce Lee, Indian films from Bollywood and Disney cartoons. We especially loved Snow White.

Her parents gave the same education to all their children, boys and girls, and Haifaa went to Cairo to study comparative literature at the American University. Back in Saudi Arabia, she worked for a petrol company, at first giving English classes, but was moved to the communications department where she learned to make videos.

Haifaa decided to use her new-found abilities to make a documentary on the life of women in her own city and in the desert. “For Women without Shadows I met old women who were very shy, never having been to school. And others who were younger, and had been able to go to school, but they suffered from much stricter segregation than their mothers.”

In 2006, this documentary was shown at international festivals, and one day also at the American Embassy, where Haifaa met her husband, an American diplomat. Later, she was able to study cinema for a Masters at Sydney University while her husband was posted to Australia. 

Back in her home country, now 38 years old and the mother of two children, she decided to make a film “to show what it's like to be young and a woman in Saudi Arabia. The heroine, Wadjda, is a mix of myself, my school-friends and my nieces,” she says.

Permission was given to film in the capital, Riyad, but a woman cannot be seen working with men in the street, so for outside scenes Haifaa directed the actors sitting in a van and using a walkie-talkie.

Wadjda is not a crusading film, but an intimate, often funny story which brings us close to a band of schoolgirls coping with strict limits on their freedom. The heroine, like many another 11-year-old, dreams of having her very own bike.

The main character is played by Waad Mohammed, dressed in jeans and trainers under her long black abaya, for she is just at the age where she must wear a veil in the street. We are privileged to witness a tender relationship with her mother, Saudi actress Reem Abdullah. Because women are not allowed to drive, this elegant and intelligent woman is dependent on the whims of an illiterate driver to be able to go to work.

Girls are not allowed to ride bikes either. But Wadjda keeps her target always in view, earning and saving whatever money she can get, and often, after school, passing by the shop where the bike she dreams of owning stands wrapped in plastic.

Then her school announces a competition for the recitation of verses of the Koran, with a prize of money for the winner. Wadjda begins to practise, and we Western viewers learn the intricacies of the Arab psalmody, sung by the school girls.

Many other stories are interwoven into the scenario. When Wadjda won the prizes for Best Arab Film and Best Actress in Dubai, some people from Saudi Arabia were able to see the film.

“What struck my own sister, who is very religious, was that the film shows the ‘real life’ in our country. On the TV we usually have only soap operas where heavily made-up women are seen in huge American-style apartments.”

In one scene, Wadjda accompanies her mother who wants to buy a new dress for a wedding. They find a beautiful red evening dress, but to try it on they have to go down the street to the public toilets where Wadjda sits on the washbasin and watches her mother put on the beautiful gown. As always in the film, there is no explanation, but we guess that there are no facilities for women to try on clothes in the shop. The mother has to make the best of the cramped space in the toilet to change, and looks at herself in the cracked, dirty mirror. There is a silent complicity between the mother and daughter, and a stark contrast between the bright beautiful red dress and the heavy black abaya that covers the mother from head to toe.

The way Haifaa found the funding for her film is a story in itself. “No-one thought it was possible to make a film, so no producer wanted to give me any money.” Finally, it was a member of the Saudi Royal family who financed the film. Prince Al-Walid bin Talal saw the documentary Women without Shadows and decided to help with the production of Wadjda

“Some members of the Royal Family realise very well that we will have to end the segregation between men and women. Of course, it's very slow. But King Abdullah has just named 30 women as members of his Council.” Women will get the vote in 2015, but only for municipal elections.

And they still must not laugh in public, nor let their face be seen by a man.

If this film comes near you, go to see it. It's a gem.

Mary O’Neill Le Rumeur writes from Angers in France where she lives and teaches English.

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