Middle East Girl Power

Haifaa Al Mansour is the first director (and first woman) to film an entire move in Saudi Arabia

by Alison Bailes
woman filming movie image
Photograph: Tobias Kownatzki © Razor Film Courtesy Of Sony Pictures Classics

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, a country with no movie theaters, didn’t stop Haifaa Al Mansour from becoming the first director, and the first woman, to film an entire feature there. Her movie, Wadjda, is about an irrepressible girl (played by Waad Mohammed, above) living in a conservative society who would rather wear jeans than a headscarf.

More: Why did you use a child as your central character?
Haifaa Al Mansour: With a child’s fresh outlook, you can tell things you cannot tell from an adult perspective. Also, women in Saudi Arabia are expected to live in privacy, so using a child gave me freedom to film her out on the street.

More: Did you encounter problems as a female director?
HAM: It was hard. I had to be in a van because as a woman, I’m not expected to be outside working with men. But I think it’s important to concentrate on what we can do rather than on what we cannot and just move ahead.

More: What does the film tell people about your country?
HAM: It’s very tough for girls in Saudi Arabia, but things are changing. Waad Mohammed, who plays Wadjda, came to the audition wearing sneakers and jeans, and she was listening to Justin Bieber on headphones. That’s the future! I very much based ­Wadjda on my niece, who is feisty and has a great sense of humor. So this film tells her and girls like her not to give up. 

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First published in the October 2013 issue of More.

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