Pushing gender barriers with “forbidden” movie

Anja Pandeia UNESCO

Saudi Arabia’s first female movie director is called “un-Islamic” by opponents and “pioneering” by followers. Recently she has produced the first ever movie in the country where cinemas are banned. Anja Pil Christoffersen translates an interview held with Haifaa Al Mansour in Universitas, following the film’s release in Norwegian cinemas.

“It is time for Saudi women to dare to fight for their own identity and voice. It is only by pushing these boundaries that we can experience change,” says director Haifaa Al Mansour.

On November 1st, the movie ”Wadjda” is released in Norwegian cinemas. It is the first movie shot and produced entirely in Saudi Arabia.  The movie is about the ten-year-old schoolgirl Wadjda and her dream of getting her own bicycle. She is told that bikes are not for girls, but that does not stop her from trying to save up the money for one. She does this by registering for a religious contest, where she can win money by reciting Qur’an verses by heart.

“I wanted to portray a young Saudi girl and her life in the capital as realistically as possible. But by telling the story of Wadjda and her dream the women’s rights debate became inevitable,” says Al Mansour

‘Not a Political Piece’

In Saudi Arabia it is forbidden for women to drive cars, show their faces in public or travel without permission from a male relative or partner. If a woman travels across country borders, a text message is automatically sent to her husband.

However “Wadjda” is no deep political film, at least not on the surface, the director says. She wanted to tell a seemingly simple story of a child’s dreams and the resistance she encounters to reach them.

“This is a side of everyday Saudi Arabian life, which has never before been shown on the big screen,” she says.

Al Mansour hopes that the realistic characters will make people outside of Saudi Arabia able to relate to the story.

“The protagonist – little Wadjda, is just like any other girl: she listens to music, plays video games, does not want to listen to her parents and has a desire to take part in a larger, globalized youth culture. That is how it is for young people in Saudi Arabia today.”

The fear of consequences

Al Mansour eventually succeeded to shoot the entire movie in her home country, but the task proved to be much harder than expected.

“One of the biggest challenges was to convince people to act in the movie.”

Al Mansour explains how the interest in the movie project was overwhelming, but so was the fear of the consequences of taking part.

“Some people would audition one day and hear that they were perfect for the role, and then have no contact with us again. Of course this made ​​it extra difficult for us.”

During the process of making the movie, Al Mansour was met with criticism for the fact that she, as a woman, was directing scenes containing male actors. She had to sit in a van with monitors and walkie-talkies and guide them through the scenes. It often ended with her ​giving up and coming out anyway.

“We had all the permits we needed to shoot on the locations we used, and I have never agreed with the criticism. I want to tell stories, and I want to inform people about my country. I want my children to be able to grow up in Saudi Arabia without risking anything on the basis of gender and opinions.

“To achieve this, some of us have to stand up first.”

The fight for one’s voice

Al Mansour emphasizes how easy it is to forget that Saudi Arabia actually is a modern state, since it is usually the conservative gender roles that are discussed in the international media.

“Although Saudi Arabia is a modern and ‘high-tech’ country, most people are deeply conservative. I believe that the recent years have proved that it may be starting to soften, but this does not happen by itself.”

Al Mansour has a strong desire to fight for the women in her home country – and she is not alone in this fight. In early October of this year four women were allowed to practice as lawyers for the first time – a profession that has previously been reserved for men. In April, a job fair was held in the capital Riyadh for women who did not want to go straight into marriage after finishing their education. It was also the year where women were given the right to own their own bike.

“I am so proud of my generation of women who lift their veils and fight for their own identity and voice.

“Outside the capital, there are an incredible number of strong girls like Wadjda. These girls are going to grow up and redefine women in Saudi Arabia,” says Al Mansour.

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Original Article by Aili Røtterud Løchen for universitas.no

Photo: Ena Kreso


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