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.
“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.
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.
“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.
According to a declaration the king made in 2011, women will be able to vote and seek office in the planned 2015 local elections and be appointed to Saudi Arabia’s advisory “parliament.”
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.
“I feel so proud, and I feel so emotional,” she said. “It is good to be a global player in culture. Almost every country in the world sends the best cinematic achievement of the year. Saudi, too.”
Then she added, with another laugh, “Even if it is the only cinematic achievement of the year.”