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The Director Of “Wadjda” Is The Coolest Woman In The World

“I feel it is not the time to complain and make a sad film, it is the time to empower people, to give hope…” The female Saudi film director speaks to BuzzFeed.

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Haifaa Al Mansour directs Abdullrahman Al Gohani (left) and Waad Mohammed.

Wadjda, the first feature film from Saudi writer-director Haifaa Al Mansour, tells the apparently small story of a 10-year-old girl in Riyadh who decides (transgressively!) to buy a green bicycle. After Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), the eponymous heroine, sees her bracelet-selling operation shut down on the schoolyard, she starts studying for her school’s Koran recitation competition, not mentioning to her teachers that her devotion is mostly to the cash prize. Shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda — which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday — is a movie about Saudi women by a Saudi woman: Mansour grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia.

In its unassuming way, the movie manages to dismiss gender roles, place a young girl at the center of a narrative, and make that girl a smart, self-determining, and generally formed person. Mansour does what few filmmakers do: She shows a child with agency. Wadjda doesn’t discover herself in the movie — instead, she reveals herself as the intelligent person she’s always been, a character who doesn’t so much resist the expectations that society has placed on her as she does acknowledge their existence while blithely ignoring them. Throughout the film, she is the character most sure of herself. By the end, if anyone comes of age, it’s really Wadjda’s somewhat conservative mother (Reem Abdullah). Mansour manages to use a light comedy as a vehicle for an ultimately subversive story. What follows is an edited transcript of BuzzFeed’s conversation with Mansour.

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Waad Mohammed, on set with the must-have bicycle.

One of the things that was interesting about Wadjda was it seems like such a small story on the surface, and it’s about these small tactics of resistance. Was this always a quiet story in your mind?

Haifaa Al Mansour: I always wanted to tell a story that is simple and powerful and that projects a lot about the society, and says where it comes from. I also wanted to bring this slice of life from Saudi. Sometimes Saudi is such an amazing place, you can just put a camera over there. There is so much happening, and people can come to their own conclusion about things. I really wanted to tell a simple story, but that still maintained my voice and said things about where I come from.

Who did you feel you were making the movie for? Who is your ideal audience?

HM: I wanted to tell a story, of course, that is celebrated back at home. I wanted Saudis to see themselves in it, and I wanted to be part of what is happening in Saudi Arabia, like where all of Saudi Arabia is opening up. People are moving away from conservative ideologies, becoming more moderate, and I wanted to be part of that. But in Saudi Arabia, we don’t have the industry, and for me it was very important also to open the world, so I wanted always to co-produce with Europe, because they have this tradition of co-producing with the Middle East. I wanted to tell a very authentic story. I was always concerned while writing that people understand the humor. The humor, sometimes, is very unique to a certain culture, so I really wanted this not to be very local, and open it to the world. There are certainly some jokes that only Saudis understand. It’s really nice to see when we have these inner jokes, and they only understand it. Sometimes when I show the film in the West and there’s a Saudi in the audience, everybody’s quiet and the Saudi will just crack up at a joke there, and it’s funny. There’s a Saudi in the crowd.

What’s an example of that?

HM: For example, the guy who was dating the girl, who’s cool with his car? There is something written, this is the kind of lyrics or poetry that — only a certain type of a guy would do that. I don’t know how to explain it. But they understand exactly where this guy comes from, and for them it’s really funny.

This is your first feature-length film — did you always want to make features or was there was something specific that precipitated your shift from short films?

HM: I always wanted to make a feature, but I always understood a feature for me was always difficult. I always wanted to do something that is good, and it’s not only for — the Arab world is very limiting when it comes to films, and I wanted something that traveled, so I knew that it needs a lot of work. Yeah, it took me five years to make this film, between writing and financing and shooting, it’s a lot of time. And I’m really, I’m grateful for a lot of people. I wrote the first draft, and I submitted it to Sundance Writers’ Lab, and it got accepted, and that was really a great push. They helped me a lot, shaping the script — I changed the whole third act after the writer’s lab. I was at the time trying to contact production companies in the West, especially in Europe because there is a tradition of co-producing, and I’d go, “Hello, my name is Haifaa al Mansour, I’m a Saudi filmmaker, and I have an idea.” And of course, nobody responded. It always goes to the junk mail, but there’s a firm from Berlin, they answered. They said, “Yeah, send us a synopsis.” That was amazing because they did Waltz with Bashir, Razor Film Produktion. Then Sundance put in a good word for me with them. It all came together as a team, and of course it took off, because the thing is to find a producer who really, really loves the project.

I read in the press kit that you’re the first woman director in Saudi Arabia, and this is the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Do you feel like that’s relevant to know going into the movie, or is that part of the film somehow?

HM: I know things like this will get a lot of publicity — “the first film” — so it’s cool. It is groundbreaking. It is bringing art to a conservative place, celebrating, pushing forward, stuff like that. But for me, I really wanted to make a good film. For me, I’m not relying on this to push the film. For me, I worked really hard on writing and developing the film, and we went to shoot in Saudi to maintain the authenticity, because there’s no visuals coming from Saudi, and so it’s important to see people there. I also worked hard to make a film that people will go and see and enjoy, and they feel uplifted. It’s very much important for me to inspire people. Saudi Arabia’s hard for a woman, but I didn’t want to make a film just about stoning or raping women as much as I wanted to make a film about a young woman trying to find herself, and find her first dream, and pursuing it. How it is, embracing life, and moving ahead. That is what I wanted people to take out of the film.

What kind of audience do you think this will have in Saudi Arabia?

HM: Well, I think a lot of young people will see themselves in the film because it speaks to them and speaks about them. A lot of conservatives will be hostile to the fact that there’s a woman making a film, and voicing her opinion. You know how it is in conservative places — “women should not do this and that.” I always try to be respectful to the culture, and I wanted to open a dialogue between me and the conservatives, and not to shock them or offend them or make some film that is screaming. I want to maintain my voice, empowering women, and I want to fight for women’s rights, but I don’t want to do it in a way that alienates people. Hopefully they’ll enjoy it — see the film, and see themselves in it, and maybe see something of their daughters. A real thing, just to make life easier.

Al Jazeera reported that the law against women riding bicycles in public has been modified recently in Saudi Arabia. Did your movie have anything to do with the easing of the ban?

HM: For sure, it contributed to the dialogue around women. Things like riding a bicycle to work, why can’t they? Definitely. That’s the role of the film, to be an agent for change and push for things. I was so happy to see that, and even if it is a small change, and not big in the scheme of things, that changes the mind-set of how people perceive women. How they think of women, how women are allowed to have a little bit of freedom when it comes to things like that. A small change, but we should celebrate the small changes because they are in the right direction. They are changing how people think in the long run.

One of my favorite parts of the movie was right before Wadjda goes to the Koran recitation competition, she looks at the family tree in her house, which is all male names. Earlier, she had put a piece of paper with her name on the family tree, and she sees that it’s been taken off, and she takes it and puts it in her pocket. I thought it was really moving, and I was wondering if you could talk about that a little.

HM: We put a lot of emphasis on the name — that is, the male name — and women sometimes feel invisible. They don’t matter somehow. It is a fact that they cannot deny, the fact, it’s heartbreaking, but it is very important not to look at the fact, like her. She’s maybe a little bit hurt, but she wanted to go off and win. I’m glad you caught on that, because it’s really moving for me.

During the competition, when she’s reciting from the Koran, the part that she recites is partly about people who “say they believe, but they don’t really believe.” I was wondering if that was a little joke about her participation in the contest, which wasn’t exactly what it seemed to be.

HM: Kids sometimes, they will use the system. They will use whatever is available to them to get ahead, and sometimes, they will just want to prove themselves, and using the system sometimes is the only way to reach things, especially for women. There are obstacles around you, so sometimes you need to be cunning — do you call it cunning? You need to, not scheme, but you need to always move with a plan to get to where you want. That’s how it is.

You don’t live in Saudi Arabia anymore, correct?

HM: I got married in 2007, and we moved together, but I go visit all the time, and I miss it, living in Saudi, even if it’s very frustrating for women and all that. I know it’s hard, but it’s home, and sometimes I miss that. I miss the heat. It’s an inspiring place; it has a lot of layers. Conservative ideologies, tribalism, and it’s a rich country, there is lots of access to internet and technology, and people are very traditional, so there are lots of contradictions going on. For recent times, to go home, and see the boys were in the traditional dress, and then they have sunglasses and iPods. For me, that is such a striking image and says it all — how Saudi is.

The chemistry between Wadjda and her mother was great, and they were so funny together. Was that always there or did that develop over time?

HM: Of course I wanted to make an intimate relationship between a daughter and her mother. It is a universal story: Daughters everywhere will roll their eyes and want to do things their own way. I have a 3-year-old now, and she’s exactly like that. She will never listen to me, and she always wants to do things her own way. I don’t know what she will do when she is Wadjda’s age. It’s a universal story: All kids are like that. But there is something very intimate and very special about the bond between a daughter and a mother. For me, also, I feel the mother is a warrior. She wanted to keep her husband, she wanted to keep the family together. But then, when it didn’t work, she didn’t give up. It’s this shift; she shifted toward something else. There’s so much of her written from my mother. I feel sometimes we take our mothers for granted, and I think there is so much strength as a woman I get from my mother. There’s so much she gave me that I now only appreciate.

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Reem Abdullah as Wadjda’s mother.

Did you have a bike as a kid?

HM: I did. My father was a very great guy. I come from a very small town in Saudi, one of 12 kids, and my parents never spoke English, never grew up traveling to the West and all that, but he never limited me in things that I wanted, what I wanted to do. I never felt like, “My brother can do things and I can’t.” Society will limit me, but that’s not what I got from my family. We went, when I was little, with two of my brothers, and they wanted to buy bicycles. I wasn’t included, but I saw a green one and I wanted it. It was a banana seat. He got it. The guy with the bicycles said, “Maybe it’s not the right decision.” He was reluctant, selling the thing. I wasn’t allowed to ride it on the streets. Only inside the home, in the backyard.

I also wanted to ask about Wadjda’s shoes — she dresses traditionally, but has these Converse sneakers.

HM: I wanted to create a character that is different, that is a rebel, in not a soft way, but in a very unique way. For me, Converse is all about punk, you know? So that is why I wanted to create this girl. Not just about gender; she’s her on her own, she dresses differently, and all that.

All of her rebellions are never that crazy, they’re always working in this very canny way within the system.

HM: Yes. I think that is how a lot of kids in Saudi Arabia are now, because kids in Saudi Arabia, they have access to the world. They have internet, they have so much, they see the world, they travel, and then they go back home and they have to abide by tradition. The tension between tradition and modernity for me was such an amazing concept, and I wanted to bring it in in the film. That is why I had the girl who represented my hometown, the school I went to, all that. I wanted the bicycle, which is a modern concept in one sense, of control and all that, but it is a toy and not offensive to people. I wanted to have both stories together, and to listen to a concept of modernity that sometimes isn’t raised back home because modernity is to have a flat-screen, to have a beautiful car and beautiful malls and amazing buildings. But I think it’s very important to embrace the heart of modernity as well.

With the end of the movie, where Wadjda and her mother are on the roof, what was your intention?

HM: The end, for me, was different. In one of the drafts, the mother dies. I thought, Saudi Arabia is hard for women; the mother has to die, but there was a tone problem. The film is funny, and then such a tragedy happens toward the end, and it does not fit. But I was so convinced that was how the film was going to happen. But then I went to the writers’ lab, and I listened to my mentors, and then I went to a pitch competition which was $100,000, and I said to my husband, “I’m going to pitch a different film tomorrow.” He was so nervous. But then I told him the new ending. I thought I would try it, just a continuation, that it felt right, and I just said it, and I pitched it to the jury, and they all read the previous script where the mother dies, and they went, “What? The mother doesn’t die now?” And we won! We won the $100,000.

I felt it’s just not the time to make sad films, especially in the Middle East. Things are heavy, the culture is heavy, especially when it comes to women, but I feel it is not the time to complain and make a sad film, it is the time to empower people, to give hope, to move ahead, and never give up, to pursue dreams. It’s very important to fight, but fight in a way that makes us happy. Very personal, very truthful to what we are.

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