Wadjda, a film about a 10-year-old girl's life in her homeland of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has earned the acclaim of critics for its storyline. But perhaps more praiseworthy than its plot is Wadjda's role as the first feature-length film to be produced by a female Saudi Arabian filmmaker, Haifaa Al-Mansour.
Wadjda has earned praise at acclaimed festivals such as Cannes, the Venice Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival, according to Jezebel. Haifaa Al-Mansour won the award for best director at the Dubai International Film Festival in the United Arab Emirates in 2012. The storyline follows the life of an "outgoing" young girl who enters a Koran-memorization contest at school, hoping to win the prize money to buy a bicyle. Since "the activity, until very recently, was banned to women in the desert kingdom," Wadjda is a story about pushing boundaries, hope, and progress in a conservative environment.
The filmmaker presents a relateable portrait of a young girl "Wadjda loves music, wears Chuck Taylors, and has a crush on a neighborhood boy. She wants to move, literally, and go faster than she can on foot," reports TIME.
Al-Mansour has certainly created a film about hope, but the filmmaker herself — as the first female of her kind in Saudi Arabia — serves as another source of inspiration. She is sending an important message about the capacity of Muslim women to serve positions typically occupied by men, a message of progress and hope for a new generation of female leaders in various fields.
The boundary-breaking filmmaker received an education beyond the confines of her home country — after studying at the American University in Cairo and the University of Sydney, As TIME reported, Al-Mansour created three short-length films and a full-length documentary called Women Without Shadows, that earned acclaim when it was released in 2005.
Al-Mansour overcame many obstacles throughout her quest to make Madjda, many related to her gender. She overcame a difficult search for funding and support as many "assumed that it would be impossible for a woman to get a movie made in Saudi Arabia." Next, the filmmaker struggled to find a title character since the process of being photographed as a Saudi Arabian female is considered by many to be a taboo. Her final obstacle "was getting around restrictions on women working in public." Al-Mansour resorted to uncanny methods, directing the film via walkie-talkie from inside a van.
The filmmaker's professional career is not the only example where she is pushing the boundaries set for women. According to NPR, Al-Mansour married an American diplomat back in 2007 and arrived to the wedding ceremony driving a golf cart, an activity banned for females.
In conservative countries governed by Islamic law such as Saudi Arabia, much of the nation's oppression is taken out on the female population. “There is a tension in that region and women and girls are the battlefield,” said Women for Women International (WWI) founder Zainab Salbi. It is not just men holding women back, but women holding women back Zainab suggested, pointing to the ways in which women accept the roles that have been set for them.
Al-Mansour is one of many female activists fighting against this trend, promoting a more inclusive, free society for women. She is using the power of art to relay her vision of the future, addressing issues such as child marriage and polygamy in addition to female oppression.
It is not unique to Saudi Arabia that the arts and the film industry in particular have become an outlet for repressed expression. CNN reported that in Iran, for example, "'the language of movies' has thrived since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, despite strict censorship laws," according to Duke Professor Negar Mottahedeh.
Facing intense scrutiny by the Islamic Republic which has "enforced constraints on the film industry with its requirement of modesty," Iranian filmmakers have continued to use film making as a platform to give voice to their struggles. For instance, Iranian films "Offside" (2006) and "Circle" (2000), address issues of women's rights while "Taste of Cherry," (1997) deals with suicide. While these films have been banned in Iran, they have been met by local and international audiences hungry to hear their messages.
Back in Saudi Arabia, Al-Mansour knows that change will not occur overnight. According to NPR she said that "it will take time for long-held beliefs to change" but, at the same time, "such gradual change might be necessary in such a deeply conservative society."
Regardless, Al-Mansour has demonstrated that action can prompt change. According to TIME, "a Saudi official announced that, under certain conditions, women are now allowed to ride bicycles in public," following the release of Wadjda. While she is correct that progress must be gradual, it is certainly possible. Hopefully Al-Mansour's success will prompt other women to follow suit and she will be but the first of many female Saudi Arabian filmmakers to come. Her message should echo far beyond the film industry, opening the doors for women to enter diverse industries that were previously considered off-limits.