Saudi Arabia’s first woman film maker, Haifaa Al-Mansour, said her country was becoming “more tolerant and more accepting” as she picked up an award in Cannes on Saturday for her acclaimed film “Wadjda”.
The 2012 tale of an impish young Saudi girl who plots to own a bicycle in defiance of a ban has won the hearts of critics and public alike in France, Germany and Switzerland, where it is being distributed.
Filming “Wadjda” was an odyssey in itself.
In conservative neighbourhoods, local residents would block shooting, or Mansour would have to direct from a van with a walkie-talkie, as she could not be seen in public together with male crew and actors.
The film itself will only be seen in the kingdom on DVD or on television, as cinemas there are banned.
Invited to the Cannes Film Festival to pick up a prize in the “newcomers” category of the France-Culture Liberation awards, Mansour played down the pressure from conservatives and argued that the future for women in her country was more promising.
Conservative reaction to the movie, as measured on Twitter, remained hostile, but there had been a hugely positive reaction amongst young women, especially those on scholarships abroad, she said in an interview with AFP.
“Conservatives in general, men and women, I think what they want is for women to exist in privacy, they want women to be in a certain way, the way that they know, the way that makes them feel secure and all that,” she said.
But, she argued, “The country is not as it was before, all conservative, there is room now, there is room to bring in art and women’s rights and women’s issues, and people are more tolerant and more accepting. So it is changing.”
Waad Mohammed, the 10-year-old actress who plays the lead role, has had no negative repercussions from the boundary-testing film, Mansour said.
“She has no problem at all. She calls me sometimes, ‘I am on TV!’, ‘We want a quote from you!’ She has won the best actress in Dubai,” she said.
“Saudi Arabia is really opening up and changing, there is a space for women, especially young women, and the film was also very intimate, it wasn’t flashy. She’s celebrated, she’s a star at school now, and she’s having a good time.”
Mansour, 38, was one of 12 children who grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia, with parents who supported her career despite pressure from relatives who said filmmaking was “not honourable”.
She studied literature at the American University in Cairo and film at the University of Sydney; her husband is American.
She said her plans included making another film in Saudi Arabia.
“There are so many stories to tell,” she said.
“I want to go to my hometown and do stories on all the girls I went to school with. It’s a great source of inspiration. Now I am just travelling with the film. Hopefully in the coming months I will settle down and start working on a project.”
“Wadjda” was co-produced by Germany’s Razor Film and several Saudi companies, including Rotana Studios, which is linked to a member of the royal family.
Asked if she felt she was being forced into a role as a defender of Saudi women’s rights, Mansour said she had not sought the part, but did not reject it, either.
“I hope to inspire other filmmakers and women in Saudi to believe in themselves and that if they really believe in something they can change their reality. It’s very important to create a space for ourselves,” she said.
“It is hard in a place like Saudi Arabia and the Middle East sometimes for a woman. But it is very important not to give up.”