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'Wadjda' Director Confronted Obstacles to Art

14 Feb, 2014 By: Chris Tribbey

Haifaa Al Mansour, writer and director of the Arabic-language film Wadjda, didn’t set out to become Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, or to have her film be the first feature shot entirely in that Middle Eastern kingdom.

She just wanted to make a movie.

“Saudi Arabia is not known for its love of art, and I feel like it took a lot of work just to push for this movie to come from Saudi,” the 39-year-old director said, speaking from the island country of Bahrain. “I think it can help the country open up because art makes people more tolerant.

“We pushed boundaries and opened up the world to a place [people] don’t know much about.”

And it wasn’t easy getting Wadjda (available as a Blu-ray Disc combo pack from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) completed, not just because of who was making it (female leads and director) but also because of the subject matter.

A 10-year-old girl living in the capital of Saudi Arabia is kind of a troublemaker, at least when it comes to the country’s strict rules regarding what girls are allowed to do. When Wadjda (newcomer Waad Mohammed) decides she wants to buy a green bicycle she’s spotted for sale — a definite no-no for a girl’s “virtue” in Saudi Arabia — she attempts to raise the money herself.

“We were pressured not to make this film at all,” said Al Mansour, who brought most of her film crew in from Germany. “Financing was an issue. Travel was an issue. And because the country is segregated, there were a lot of limitations for the women [involved].”

And, Al Mansour said, the Saudi work ethic on artist projects isn’t “like the Germans.”

“Every time we were there, every time we got slots of time, especially at the beginning of filming, because of the schedule — the Germans are all about coming on time, and Saudis are more relaxed — it was really hard to get the wheel rolling,” she laughed.

But her patience paid off. The film became Saudi Arabia’s first-ever submission for the Academy Award for Foreign-Language film (though it didn’t ultimately elicit a nomination). It also was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and a BAFTA for Best Film, and it won Best International Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Al Mansour credits the success of the finished film to finding the right girl to play Wadjda.

“[Waad Mohammed] is very, very natural, and for me when I was casting, I wanted a character with a great sense of humor, but she also had to be able to read the Koran,” Al Mansour said. “When she came in she didn’t make up her hair or anything, but her voice was very beautiful. And her features are very, distinctly Saudi, and I wanted someone who looked like they were from the region, a next-door girl, a person who you could believe in.”

Bonus features include a commentary with Al Mansour, a Director’s Guild of America Q&A with her, and a telling making-of featurette that shows the struggles behind the film’s production.

“Behind the scenes it was a very stressful situation, an environment where any time something delayed us, we had to stall, and even though they didn’t cooperate sometimes, it was very important to show the dedication and care in the work, that we made it happen,” Al Mansour said. “And I have to give a lot [of credit] to my producers, who didn’t hesitate to take a risk.”

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