Can you imagine making a movie in a country that has no movie theaters and in which the film industry is totally inexistent? Haifaa Al Mansour didn’t just imagine it but she actually did it. This week’s spotlight is presenting you Saudi Arabia’s first female director that realized the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.

Haiffa Al Mansour 1Being a woman in Saudi means facing an “opaque” universe daily. Starting with the black colours of the clothing that needs to cover the whole body except the eyes and the hands and ending with denied access to a lot of rights that are reserved just for men, Saudi women face the gender limits imposed by mainly unwritten laws. Haifaa Al Mansour overcame all  these obstacles and pursued her dream of being a filmmaker in her very conservative country of origin. Talking about her first feature film, Wadjda, she explains: “I really wanted  to set it in Saudi. I wanted women there to see something of their lives in this film. It’s a  place where telling a story is not always easy and there were lots of things to stop me. I had a lot of boundaries placed around me, but it is worth it.”

Wadjda, the first ever film to be shot in Saudi Arabia made its debut in 2012 at the Cannes’ Marché  du Film, one of the largest film markets in the world and had its world premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival.The movie written and directed by Haifaa Al Mansour tells the story of an 11-year old girl growing up in the suburbs of Riyadh constantly trying to circumvent restrictions and  break social barriers. Her dream is to own and ride a green bicycle, an unreachable luxury in the  ultra traditional Gulf state. Sure, the bicycle is used by Al Mansour as a metaphor to portray all  the forbidden dreams that women in Saudi Arabia might have. In an indirect way, the film is  portraying the segregation of women in Saudi Arabia, where they hold a lower legal status to men,  are banned from driving, biking and need a male guardian’s permission to work, travel or open a  bank account. “It’s easy to say it’s a difficult, conservative place for a woman and do nothing  about it, but we need to push forward and hope we can help make it a more relaxed and tolerant  society,” Al Mansour said after her film premiered in Venice.

The first Saudi female director spoke of the difficulties she faced filming in Riyadh, despite having obtained permission from authorities to do so. She occasionally had to hide in a van in some of the more conservative areas where locals disapproved of a female film-maker mixing with men on set, and at times had to direct her male actors via walkie-talkie. She was accused of being unreligious and she even received hate mail for making the film. But the passion for filmmaking and the belief that movies are a way to communicate powerful messages and even bring tolerance, made Al Mansour overcome all these difficult conditions. “I feel so honoured, honestly, to be putting a human face on my culture. Too many women are invisible here, and I hope, in a small way, I can inspire other Saudi women to break away from the ordinary and to find success.”

Even though Wadjda had limited audience in its own country and was given low chances of success at the beginning, the first movie ever to be shot in Saudi Arabia is a proof of courage and a way of talking openly about subjects considered taboo. All these make Al Mansour a filmmmaker to get inspired from, admire and follow in the future.
Just like Haifaa Al Mansour we believe that films are a way of promotiong and sustaining cultural diversity and tolerance. Our dedicated Arabic section is waiting for independent Arab filmmakers to submit their movies to ÉCU 2014 and compete for The Ahmed Khedr Award for Excellence in Arab Filmmaking.

Ruxandra Matei

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