She misses being in the van, she says, then clarifies herself. It’s not that she misses being in the van. She misses her mind-set when she was in the van.
The van was a Hyundai. From inside it, through a two-way radio, she directed what is being called the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. If she had stepped out of the van into the streets of Riyadh, if she had given direction like a director does, blocking her actors’ movements out in the open, men following her orders — “people would’ve stopped the shooting, because they don’t like it,” Haifaa Al Mansour says. “In Saudi, it’s not against the law, because there’s no law, but it’s against the social conduct. People don’t do that.”
“That” being directing a film in public in the conservative Muslim kingdom, if you’re a woman. And yet here is Al Mansour in a hotel suite in the District’s West End, a silver tray of noontime tea in front of her, across from an easel holding a poster pocked with praise for her film “Wadjda” (pronounced “WA-je-da”). The van was both a necessary capitulation to Saudi codes and a way around them, and the film’s title character employs a similar strategy in Al Mansour’s story: By competing for a cash prize in a Koran memorization contest, feisty 10-year-old Wadjda hopes to buy a bicycle for herself, even though bicycles are off limits to girls.
The first Saudi feature film is directed by a woman and features a female character who subverts the religious patriarchy for her own betterment — is it one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind?
Maybe to outside observers. Al Mansour, 39, will lay claim only to small steps, and her film career has proceeded that way until now, as the film rolls out in the United States over the next two months (it opens Friday in the District). In the year since the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, she has been labeled both pioneer and pariah, though she insists that all she has done is film a slice of everyday Saudi life.
“Saudis have a great sense of humor,” Al Mansour says. “A lot of people don’t know that, but they’re very sarcastic, very political, and I like that. I like reading tweets about people who hate me. They come up with the most — I don’t want to tell you, but they’re clever and make me laugh.”
She grew up the eighth of 12 children in a town between Riyadh and the Persian Gulf. Her father, a poet, kept a voluminous library, a rare feature in a small-town Saudi home. She remembers reading Agatha Christie and watching whatever her father brought home from the video store (Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies on VHS, “Evil Dead” once). After studying literature and widening her worldview at the American University in Cairo, Al Mansour returned to Saudi Arabia and became an English teacher at an oil company, where she bumped up against a glass ceiling.
“I tried to get promoted and never got promoted,” she says. “I’d go to meetings, and I felt so invisible. I just wanted to have something like therapy, and I love film, so I started making a short.”
She didn’t know how to make a movie but found that the camera gave her a sense of voice and control, so she took larger steps. She moved to Australia and in 2009 completed a master’s degree in directing and film studies at the University of Sydney. A draft of “Wadjda” was part of her thesis, and she pitched the screenplay to an Abu Dhabi film conference by saying it was “Juno” meets “The Kite Runner,” though the best description might be “a young girl flouts convention to the amusement or horror of her friends and elders.” A jury awarded her $100,000 in development money.
Saudi Arabia is “a very conservative and mostly closed society,” says Camille Alick, who is the program director for California nonprofit Muslims on Screen and Television and who helped Al Mansour refine her pitch at the Abu Dhabi conference. “So I think just having the opportunity as an audience to be able to peer in, and to be able to have someone like Haifaa guide you — it’s like someone opening their home. That’s the best you can ask for.”
After Al Mansour won the development money came the hard part: finding someone to produce it. Al Mansour e-mailed every arts funding organization in the Middle East, she says, and every production company in Europe. She quietly relishes meeting those producers who ignored her entreaties at film festivals where “Wadjda” has won hearts over the past year and a half: Tribeca this past spring, Cannes the spring before that, Telluride and Venice last year.
“They introduce themselves to me and I’m like, ‘Yeah, remember I sent you an e-mail?’ ” she says, laughing. “And they’re like, ‘I can’t imagine! Did you ?’ ”
The project was finally backed by Berlin-based Razor Film, which also produced the animated Israeli documentary “Waltz With Bashir” and the Palestinian feature “Paradise Now,” and partially funded by Rotana Studios and its billionaire owner, Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal. The Saudi Ministry of Culture signed off on the shoot, and last week Saudi Arabia announced that it had formally submitted “Wadjda” for consideration in the foreign-language Oscar category.
Her country has permitted her to work as a filmmaker, though it was still necessary for Al Mansour to direct public scenes from inside a van. She recognizes the cognitive dissonance.
“Reem Abdullah is a very famous TV star,” Al Mansour says, referring to the actor who plays Wadjda’s mother. “Reem, for example, can go to the supermarket and buy the most popular magazine with her face on it, and she’s posing in a very Western way, but she’s wearing an abaya because she’s not allowed on the street without one.”
The making and release of “Wadjda” aligns with other recent firsts for women in Saudi Arabia, says Isobel Coleman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East.” The swearing-in of 30 women to the Saudi king’s Shura Council earlier this year, the Olympic debut of female Saudi athletes in London last summer, the Women2Drive campaign that began on Saudi streets in 2011 — all are markers of change and also, paradoxically, reminders of the hurdles women still face in conservative nations in the Middle East. Even as educational opportunities have increased, unemployment among Saudi women who want to join the workforce is 34 percent, The Washington Post reported last year, mainly because of the strict interpretation of Islam that keeps women cordoned off from society.
“You have these events that are happening that are incrementally normalizing a role for women in society, and Haifaa’s film is another step in that direction,” Coleman says.
Coleman sees some parallels to the Iranian film scene, where female filmmakers have had recent success. “It’s helped Westerners and outsiders understand the nuances and complexities of the issues in Iran. But, if anything, things have gotten worse for women in Iran in recent years.”
Al Mansour, hoping to be “back in the van” soon, is working on another feature screenplay with Razor Film and developing an American TV series with producers from “Mad Men.” She’s excited for the “Wadjda” premiere in Bahrain — where she lives with her American diplomat husband and two young children — and for Saudi Arabians to eventually see it on DVD, since there are no movie theaters in the country.
“I hope a father buys it for his daughter, or something like that,” Al Mansour says. “Or if a man watches it and, like my father did, gives more space to his daughter, to his wife. Because men control women’s lives in Saudi. It takes a real man to be a little relaxed and allow women to be.”