Haifaa Al-Mansour may not have intended to base the titular character of her film, Wadjda, on herself, but given Al-Mansour's experience as the first female Saudi Arabian filmmaker, she certainly seems to share the determination, courage, and defiance of her protagonist.
Wadjda is the first film to be shot entirely on Saudi Arabian soil. The groundbreaking film has already earned a great deal of praise. It took the prize for Best International Feature at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival, as well as three awards, including the Cinema for Peace prize, at the Venice Film Festival. It was also an official selection at this year's Tribeca and Toronto Film Festivals.
Wadjda tells the story of a young girl's experience growing up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in a culture that, in Al-Mansour's words, "can be especially brutal and unforgiving to people who fall out of step with the society." Ten-year-old Wadjda is growing up in a religious and conservative society that's governed by Sharia law, and offers very few opportunities for women. Defiant and groundbreaking protagonist Wadjda is determined to buy a bicycle, even though bike riding is considered off-limits for girls. Rather than acquiesce to the limitations society has placed on her, Wadjda proves that her perseverance has no limits, joining a Koran recitation competition to win the prize money for her bike.
Al-Mansour's small-scale story about a young girl's quest to ride a bike speaks to the larger issues of opportunities for women, fundamentalism, and overcoming the obstacles of a conservative and oppressive society. While her tale is particular to Saudi Arabia, the film also resonates on a universal level. Above all, Wadjda is a statement about the constraints placed on women, and the power they possess to overcome them.
Al-Mansour said she wanted to present, "an accurate portrayal of the situation of women in Saudi Arabia," by creating, "believable characters ... who have to maneuver through the system the only way they know how." Wadjda, her mother, her peers and her schoolteachers allow Al-Mansour to depict the diverse daily challenges that Saudi Arabian women face at all ages, and the imbalanced power dynamic between women and men.
In Saudi Arabia, women are not permitted to operate vehicles, be seen without a head covering in public, or even interact with men to whom they aren't married in private. A woman who oversteps any of these boundaries is not only considered improper, but also a sinner. Unmarried female characters in Wadjda who are discovered associating with men in private are the subjects of shame and gossip, and are even persecuted by religious authorities. Al-Mansour also provides commentary about arranged marriage in Islamic society through the story of Wadjda's mother.
Wadjda contains many strong female characters, but it is more than a feminist tale. The film represents Saudi Arabian culture at large, and speaks to Al-Mansour's experiences growing up in such a restrictive and traditional environment, where everyone plays a role in perpetuating society's structure. According to Al-Mansour, "Both the men and the women in the film are in the same boat, both pressured by the system to act and behave in certain ways." As such, Al-Mansour intended for her film to be relateable for anyone, male or female, who has been labeled as an outcast for desiring something that falls outside the realm of what is traditionally acceptable.
While the film isn't autobiographical, Al-Mansour certainly seems to have a lot in common with her protagonist, as both are females who attempt to break the gender boundaries in Saudi Arabia. Just as riding a bike is considered an inappropriate activity for Wadjda, filmmaking has traditionally been viewed as an activity for men. Al-Mansour called the experience of making Wadjda both, "challenging and extremely rewarding at the same time," as she struggled to find adequate funding, as well as actresses to play her controversial roles. At times, Al-Mansour was even required to hide during production, because conservatives did not approve of her mixing professionally and publicly with men.
Al-Mansour was raised in a liberal household, but she was still subject to the demands of her conservative society. While Saudi Arabia lacked theaters, Al-Mansour's father made sure that she had access to movies and books, which exposed her to the world beyond the confines of her hometown. Eventually, Al-Mansour left Saudi Arabia to study at the American University in Cairo in Egypt, and at the University of Sydney in Australia.
Speaking at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, Al-Mansour told the crowd that she, "tried to make a film about hope, embracing change and moving ahead,” according to TIME. She definitely succeeded in her effort. Rather than waiting passively for doors to open before them, both Al-Mansour and Wadjda forged their own paths, and pushed the boundaries society set for them. Their perseverance and courage allowed them to confront risks, and follow their dreams. Al Mansour and her protagonist are testaments to the power of women, and should inspire women around the world.