by writer/director Haifaa Al Mansour
I started writing my film Wadjda about 5 years ago because I felt like there was something universal and simple about a young girl wanting a bicycle. There is also a cultural taboo common throughout the Arab world that bicycles threaten a woman's honor, so I felt like it was an interesting symbol of the challenges facing women in my country. But instead of focusing on how hard it is to be a woman in Saudi Arabia I wanted to make a film that shows the world how strong we are.
When the story was finally ready we submitted all the paperwork and got approval to film. Although we don’t have cinemas we have a system for TV production and they treated the project in the same way. Most of the early backers of the film tried to convince me to shoot it somewhere more open to film but it was really important to me to shoot it in the heart of Riyadh—and to make the first film ever shot in the Kingdom. We did see some hostility while filming in public, but we saw a lot more curiosity, of people who were excited to see something new going on in their neighborhood.
I think a lot of people expect the film to be more confrontational, and maybe more radical in its delivery. But my film is less a criticism of the system as it is of people who think they are powerless to change their place within it. I wanted to show that the characters have choices, and that the easiest choice is always to conform, and that the choice to break away can be difficult but also incredibly rewarding. I also wanted to make a film Saudis could be proud of, and one that would make film as a medium seem less threatening.
I was really happy that so many Saudis came out to see the film at the Dubai International Film Festival, and that they continue to come out and support it in every festival I’ve been to. At a recent festival in Europe a Saudi student came up to me and said, “Now I know how Americans feel when they watch an American film at the theater.”
There are so many amazing stories to tell from Saudi, especially now, as we stand at a crossroads between the traditions of our past and the changes that modernization will bring. I hope to make a lot more films in the Kingdom and I can’t wait for the day that I can show them at a Saudi cinema.