“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.”