"‘Wadjda’ Director Haifaa al-Mansour On Saudi Women, What Sexism Denies Men, And Digital Filmmaking"
Wadjda, a movie about a young girl who decides to enter a Koran-recitation competition to win the money to buy a bicycle she wants to use to race a neighbor boy, has already attracted attention for the basic facts of its production: it’s the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia, with the permission of the Saudi regime. Add to that origin story that Wadjda is a sharp look at the way restrictions on Saudi women’s movements, whether they’re girls walking to school or adult women negotiating with the drivers who take them to work, affect their lives, and that it’s exceptionally funny and warmly-acted, and you’ve got a movie that isn’t just important–it’s a lot of fun to watch.
I spoke with Wadjda‘s director, Haifaa al-Mansour about scouting locations in Saudi Arabia, how her relationships with her drivers when she started working influenced the movie, and how a culture like Saudi Arabia’s limits both men and women’s lives. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I wanted to start out by asking you about the locations, because obviously there’s been a lot of attention to the film because its fully shot in Saudi Arabia, but I was very curious about what you wanted to say about the physical space of the country. That shot at the end in the particular when Wadjda hits the highway, and its just sort of a blank, I thought it was very arresting.
Yeah, it was hard to find that location. I wrote that in the script, and everybody, they said like, “Hmmm, where can we find an urban space that opens with a highway and then nothing?” So we toured around together and we found a place. And for me I wanted not to take for granted, not to take things—Saudi Arabia might seem safe and for the girls might seem like… There is danger. And we have to go through that danger. And it is not danger in a way like, not to take things for granted…If you want to be successful, if you want to be on that bicycle, there is so much to overcome. So there is always the sense of danger towards that. And that is like celebration and anything, but still, if you like, “I hope she doesn’t go continue.”
And its not just the traffic. I thought it was interesting you have a lot of construction sites and I think most striking to me was the storefronts look like a lot of places I’ve been in China and Cambodia, but there’s very little street life in the scenes.
Yeah. But in Saudi people don’t go out and don’t walk a lot. It is a hot place to start off with, and residential areas, people are… it is quiet. Saudi Arabia is very urban, it is populated, it is highly populated. But in residential areas things are quiet, its not very… you won’t find people screaming in the street or selling vegetables, its not like that…When they went to downtown there was more, that is where the heart of the thing happens. But interesting that you brought up construction sites, because Saudi Arabia is a developing country and there’s always construction. And you know if you’ve heard about Dubai how there is construction all the time, Saudi is like that. They are always like, buildings are coming, and coming, and coming. And wherever you go there is construction, it’s a growing and expanding nation.
Since you bring up construction and development, I thought it was interesting in the moment when the status of immigrants comes up in the movie, and there’s that sort of threat to the mother’s driver that is apparently very effective. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that moment, because I thought that was fascinating.
Well, yeah. The relationship between drivers and women are very funny. It is very funny because it is a power struggle all the time. Because women, they think they are the boss since they are paying, and the drivers know that women cannot go anywhere without them. So they know that they are ultimately the boss. And women are not the best, like they are late, they don’t pay on time, but they are the customer, the biggest customer. So there is always a power struggle between the two.
And for me, of course, guest workers I feel in Saudi, they come to Saudi Arabia for a better life, and it’s sad that they are not getting opportunities for education or for training, and many will not go to a rich place when they are coming from less privilege. I wish to see more things change for them, and more rules at least, and regulations for them.
I just thought it was an interesting moment because obviously, the driver is a man, but is working for a woman. He has more status as a man, but less status as an immigrant.
Yes, all that! All the politics in the car, all the time. I’ve witnessed it so many times. I used to have a driver when I got employed away from my parents’ house—when you are a woman in Saudi Arabia you are expected to stay at your parents—so I was happy that I was staying away from my parents and had a house of my own. But it is hard for me, I couldn’t go to work or anything so I had to hire a driver, and the driver is just not interested in driving, and he likes to sleep, and everyday I would wake up in the morning and try to find him like Wadjda. Knock on the doors and be like, “Where is he? Where are you?” And all the time I’d go late, and I bought him one day an alarm, like “Alright, you don’t wake up? This will.” And he was happy, and we went to the place and bought him it, and I’m like, “Yeah maybe he will wake up tomorrow morning.” He sold it!…Saudis don’t like to ride with a Saudi driver. Because Saudis will know what you’re talking about and interfere, and it’s, I don’t know, its kind of like, too close. And the girls, especially women, they want, because it’s a segregated country, they are not comfortable with a man who is from the culture. So always they are looking for a guest worker, someone who is a little bit distant, so they feel a little more comfortable in the car. So a lot of Saudi drivers don’t get jobs, it’s a profession that is not open for Saudis….
Since we are talking about the drivers. We have TV in Saudi right? And we were casting for Wadjda, all the Saudi actors wanted to be in the film. So they will come and audition as they are guest workers, so I was like, I felt awkward, I was like, “No, no, no, we can’t do that. It’s almost a documentary so I really need someone who is from the culture, from the other culture, to bring all that. So it didn’t work out.”
Oh, that’s really interesting. I’d be curious to hear about the casting process more generally, because it sounds like there was a lot of interest in the film.
The casting was difficult, because we don’t have signs for casting…We don’t have casting agencies where you can see who’s there and who’s not, so it’s really difficult of course to find a person like Wadjda, because you will have to convince her parents and all the others are already in the entertainment business. So its hard and it is a limited pool but at least there are a few actresses you can talk to, but for a while its convincing the parents and all that, to take this step of “Yes, we will do it. We will challenge tradition and go in the film.”
Was it just the question of her acting at all, or was it about the environment? Were they concerned about the environment on set?
I think its mixed. Of course for her, acting, and of course, acting because it is like, you know, being a performer, its not the most respectful, its like being a dancer or something like that, it doesn’t come with respect, you know? And it’s not a good place for a woman to be and all that. So all of it mixed, and I think it was easier because she is little and a kid.
Well that brings me to one thing that I thought was really interesting about the movie: you seem to be making the argument that this sort of obsessive focus on girls, sexual purity, actually ends up sexualizing them much earlier. I mean, if you skin your knee your mother’s reaction is “Oh my God, is it your virginity?” Or if you’re painting your nails and your headmistress accuses you of being a lesbian, that must just put much more pressure to be sort of sexually aware on girls at a much younger age.
Oh no, definitely, I think they see themselves, a lot of women in the Middle East, as sexual objects, and that is why they have to cover and all that, so as not to attract and not to attract anybody you have to be covered in a certain way, of course. And girls are aware, are being not maybe directly taught but exactly what you said, it is embedded in the culture and everyday life, and all the rules they start to observe since they are little….There is a lot of superstition even when it comes to the female body. Like, she is on a bicycle, and its like come on! There is a lot of, like, you know… ultimate fear of things, that does not allow them to see clearly, I feel like.
I was sort of curious about the range of attitudes in Wadjda and her classmates, the one who’s sort of getting married, and passing around pictures of her 20 year old husband. You know, Wadjda seems, I mean obviously she feels familiar to Western audiences because, you know, she wants to ride a bike; she has a sense of humor. But it was interesting to see the girls who were very comfortable, or relatively comfortable, with the idea that you’re getting married off at ten. I thought that was interesting to see her as the outlier rather than her as the norm.
Yes, definitely she is the outsider, but there are more girls like her now becoming in Saudi because there’s access to internet, access to the world. It’s not a closed society as before. But still, yeah, a lot of women are happy with the things how it is, and they are comfortable with it. Because it is segregated, they don’t have to do a lot of things, they don’t have to compete for work. Sometimes you get sucked into a life like that, and there’s always a man who will do things for you, do your paper. And it is—it takes a person like Wadjda who says “No, I want to be independent. I don’t want to be taken care of as a baby. I want to have my own thing and I have to want to do things my own way. And bringing Western culture, I always tell the story, Waad [Mohammed] when she came in to audition, I asked her to, because I wanted someone to sing and everything, and we liked her and everything, that was the last thing, we wanted to hear her voice. And I asked her if she can sing, so she started singing Justin Beiber. And she doesn’t speak English, only Justin Bieber songs, she will go if you ask her any song, she will go! But yeah, and that is because they are part of pop culture now, they understand, they know what it is and when. And maybe they are very much in, speak Arabic and have their own world, but still they are aware of what is happening in the world.
I thought the moment at the end when, you know, watch this mother as she loses this battle for her father’s heart, you know she almost seems a little bit freed up because, you know, now that she’s lost she can go ahead and buy her daughter the bike. She can see some of the benefits for her even in a very painful and emotional situation.
Yeah, no, I thought it was her way not to get revenge, its like, to liberate herself, like, “I don’t care. I’m done with that society who doesn’t see me, who doesn’t appreciate me. The society that stood between me and my husband.” So it is her moment to say, “I don’t care.” And it is really cool, it is emotional, it is hard to speak about that moment. It is emotional because it is hard for a woman in Saudi. It is hard to be a single woman, that means your life will be really, really complicated, you won’t be able to do any paperwork and you have to ask people to help you, and you have to do so much.
And also the culture itself, there’s a lot of, what do you call it… connotations. Bad connotations, which came to a divorced woman. She’s not, I don’t know, she’s not a good woman or stuff like that. So, she has to go through a lot if she’s willing to do it.
Well, it was interesting to see that the first thing that she can do is sort of for her daughter more than herself. She kind of backs off this idea of the hospital job that her friend enjoys a lot, but the one thing she can bring herself to do, at least initially, is get Wadjda her bike.
Yes, absolutely. I think she wanted maybe to empower her daughter. And not to let her be like her, and like give her that support maybe she didn’t get.
I thought the headmistress was a great character, who is, you know, sort of initially so proud of the extent to which she has, kind of resisted modernity, even though she dresses in a very sort of modern and even sort of alluring way on the campus of the school itself, she’s so excited by the idea that Wadjda has kind of curbed her rebellious impulses, much in the way she believes she’s curbed herself.
I think Saudi looks modern from that side, but at heart is very traditional. So that is really—and for me there is also a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to Saudi. Because people can do things in privacy, but they have to keep a face outside. And they have to keep that, kind of, “We are clean, we are chaste.” Like, what you expect us to be. But it is hard to cling to this…They just want to date sometimes, fall in love, that happens because we are humans. That is human nature and stuff like that.
I wanted to ask about Wadjda’s father, who is sort of on the margins in the movie…waiting for him to come home, waiting for him to come for dinner if he feels like it. But he seems like a person who is denying himself a lot of things too. I mean he clearly, you know he kind of intermittently loves his daughter, but it’s clear that he feels pulled elsewhere, you know? That scene with him kind of playing video games and ignoring her, he seems very young in a lot of ways.
Yes, very childish, I know. I don’t know, I think the father is, for me, is a person in love. He loves the mother, he loves his daughter, but he is not strong enough to stand up to the social pressure….He’s a bad person, but he’s not evil…That is the complexity of the situation. And you hate exactly what he’s done, but he’s normal. And that is what makes the society very vicious, that [it] affects people who are maybe kind, but it forces them to take actions that are not kind…For me, men and women are trapped in a society that denies them a lot. It’s not about making women are the best, and making men are the bad guys. I don’t think the situation is like that in Saudi.
Did producing a movie ended up leaving some infrastructure behind so other people could follow [in your footsteps]?
There is no infrastructure that I left behind, building a studio is very expensive…But the way of producing a film is what I left behind. A lot of people in Saudi want to make films but there is no movie theatre and there is no industry, it is hard for them to find finances and to structure the film in a way that is being seen in theatres and stuff. And bringing cool production and positioning films in that way, and bringing films of that type from Saudi, open the door for other filmmakers to follow. Just like what did they expect from us and how we can make a film, and how do we position it. Because we don’t have theatres and nobody wants to give us, like, its hard. The outer world is really hard, they only want to show films from the mainstream which is Egypt. Egyptian cinema is very dominant, and does not allow other—and we don’t see films from Morocco for example, they only play—and they are very good! Like amazing films, but they play only in Morocco. The big markets of the Arab world together is only for Egyptian cinemas.
Has the availability of smaller and cheaper digital cameras made it easier for people to make movies?
Oh, definitely. And that is how I became a filmmaker. And I just had my brother hold the camera and my sister hold the light, and stuff like this, and we made a short and we sent it to a small local competition. And got accepted, and it was my first ever and I could not believe that it got accepted, and they sent me a ticket and I went there, and started talking to people and everything, and they told me, I am the first female filmmaker because there were no filmmakers. So thanks to the digital era, democratized everything for sure…It is way easier, and it is easy to make, though. But on the other hand, you get a lot of stuff that you don’t think you want—I don’t want to sit through that, (laughter) I don’t know, I’m not sure. Because now it is cheaper so—but it is good, everybody has a voice. It is democracy.
Christopher Butterfield transcribed this interview.