- - Thursday, September 19, 2013

There isn’t a single public movie theater within the borders of Saudi Arabia. Saudis do watch movies at home, but the woman who wrote and directed the first movie ever filmed entirely in the Muslim kingdom isn’t even allowed to visit a video rental shop.

“I grew up watching a lot of film,” Haifaa al-Mansour told The Washington Times during a visit to the District this month to promote that breakthrough film, “Wadjda,” which opens in the Washington area and across the U.S. on Friday. With 12 children, she recalls, “our parents would bring us films to calm us down.”

But once Ms. al-Mansour, about age 12, began wearing the abaya — the black cloak required of women in the theocratic, male-dominated society — she no longer could choose films without assistance.

PHOTOS: Saudi woman's acclaimed film 'Wadjda' breaks down cultural barriers

“There’s a big sign, ‘Women are not allowed in,’” she said.

“Wadjda,” a tale of female empowerment, premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and won three awards. Ms. al-Mansour was invited back to Venice for this year’s festival as head of the first-film contest jury.

Haifaa al-Mansour, director of the acclaimed film "Wadjda," was assisted in Saudi Arabia by Abdullrahman Al Gohani (left), Waad Mohammed and others. (Sony Pictures Classics photographs)
Haifaa al-Mansour, director of the acclaimed film “Wadjda,” was assisted in Saudi ... more >

It centers on the girl of the title, herself about 12, who tries various schemes in the hopes of earning enough money to buy a bicycle to race one of the local boys. Her mother and teachers, however, insist that riding a bike in public would jeopardize a girl’s future.

Mobility and transportation are among the many ways Saudi society restricts women’s rights. Until earlier this year, in the wake of the success of “Wadjda,” women could not ride a bicycle legally and risked arrest by religious police. The kingdom also famously forbids women from driving automobiles.

Because the protagonist in “Wadjda” is a pre-pubescent girl, she technically isn’t banned from riding a bike, but her mother doesn’t see things only through that lens. According to Saudi news outlets this spring, grown women now can ride bicycles, too, but only in recreational areas and only if in compliance with other laws that require women to be heavily covered and accompanied by male relatives.

These kinds of Saudi laws and customs about the mixing of the sexes — for example, almost all education is single-sex; most homes have separate male and female entrances; and beaches and amusement parks often have different hours for men and for women — affected “Wadjda” behind the screen, too.

Ms. al-Mansour directed “Wadjda” mostly from the back of a van, using walkie-talkies. She wasn’t permitted to mix with the mostly male crew in the sex-segregated country.

“I wasn’t trying to be the Iron Woman,” she said of commanding a group of men. “I was trying to take them on a journey, be their friend, have them feel for me and help me do things. Whatever works, do it — that’s what we learn as women, right?”

Ms. al-Mansour craves change for her country, where women are all but owned by male “guardians.” If women want to cover their hair to express their religious views, she accepts it. The abaya is another thing entirely.

“Face-covering cancels their identity. They’re unknown,” she said. “When you want to cover women, you want to conceal them.”

There is no concealing the petite but commanding Ms. al-Mansour, who studied literature at the American University in Cairo and film in Australia. But she said change comes not with strident monologues, but with dialogues.

“The film is about empowering women and all that, but I wasn’t trying to say things in a loud way. I was trying to have things embedded in the story and have people discover them. I think, coming from that conservative place, that is the way to go about it,” she said.

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