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Saudi woman’s acclaimed film ‘Wadjda’ breaks down cultural barriers
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“A lot of people think it is wrong that I make films, that women should stay at home,” she said. “But I can’t just force them to change their opinion. I have to listen to them if I want them to listen to me.”
She added, with a laugh, “I don’t want to offend people. It’s enough that I’m making films about women.”
Or making films at all. As a child, she would write plays and cast her schoolmates in them, but she never saw it as anything but a hobby. Not even after a small film competition accepted her first short — made on a low budget, with her brother holding the camera and her sister the lighting. “It gave me some self-esteem and some voice,” she said.
Saudi Arabia has resisted the cinema for several decades. There were a few cinemas in the country, showing Egyptian, Turkish and other foreign films, until the early 1980s. But religious authorities, citing traditional Wahhabi opposition to image-making as idolatrous, along with concerns about Westernizing decadence, succeeded in closing them all.
A few films have been made with Saudi directors, actors and technicians — the Wikipedia page for “Cinema of Saudi Arabia” lists just 12 titles. But prior to “Wadjda,” all the fictional films were shot elsewhere.
Ms. al-Mansour now lives in Bahrain with her American diplomat husband. “I fell in love with America through him,” she said.
“I don’t blame Americans. I’m not that type of person who blames the West for everything that happens in the Middle East,” she said.
Observing that “the Middle East has its own problems” that have nothing to do with “any other nation,” Ms. al-Mansour made a refreshing acknowledgment: “We have to change at heart. We can’t blame other people for our problems.”
Although now living outside her country, Ms. al-Mansour is just a 45-minute drive away from her sister in Saudi Arabia and regularly goes back and forth during the week, though her husband or other male relative has to drive once she crosses the border. She said she can’t bear to raise her two children away from her family.
“I think Saudi Arabia is changing a lot,” the director said in a conversation peppered with the word “hope.” “There is room for women and room for the arts.”
There are other signs of change, too.
In 2009, the nation’s first co-educational university opened, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Also that year, Abdullah appointed Saudi Arabia’s first female Cabinet-level official, Norah al-Faiz, deputy minister of women’s education. The kingdom also sent its first female athletes to the 2012 London Olympics and now permits female sports teams in schools.
But there is perhaps no better evidence of the country’s progress than her own film. Made by a woman, about women, “Wadjda” is not only the first feature shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia, but this month it also became the first entry the kingdom has submitted to the Academy Awards for consideration as best foreign language film.
Ms. al-Mansour almost started to tear up in talking about how much the Oscar selection meant to her.
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