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Haifa al-Mansour: "In Saudi Arabia, any woman voicing her opinion will be seen as controversial"

Haifa al-Mansour, the first woman ever to direct a feature film in Saudi Arabia, talks to Steve Yates about how her film <em>Wadjda</em> came together.

Waad Mohammad as the title role in "Wadjda".

“I was in the van with a monitor and a walkie-talkie. So I screamed from the van. They heard my voice, my voice was inhabiting the set, but I wasn’t physically allowed to be there,” says Haifa al-Mansour about the making of Wadjda, a piece of cinema vérité which swept through last year’s festival circuit and opens in the UK on Friday. The reason large chunks of the film were directed by two-way? It was made in Riyadh and Haifa al-Mansour is a woman, the first to ever direct a feature film in Saudi Arabia.

“It was really frustrating, because I was confined in this space, I cannot go out because the country is segregated between men and women,” she says, sipping at a latte in a Soho hotel. “But it also made me work harder because it was very important for me to find the heart of the scene and tell the actors, ‘If you miss this, miss that, it’s OK – but don’t miss this!’ So if you give them the heart of it they feel more empowered and know what the scene means.”

Wadjda is a women’s picture in more than just its writer/director. It tells the story of the eponymous 10-year-old schoolgirl, whose vivacity and independence are at odds with the restricted future Saudi society has in mind for her gender. Her mother, played by leading TV actress Reem Abdullah, has already resigned herself to her lot and her chief concern is now dissuading her husband from taking a second wife.

Wadjda’s heart is set on the bicycle she needs to race against her best friend – and, he hopes, future husband – Abdullah. But Mum won’t stump up – bikes aren’t for girls – so Wadjda develops her entrepreneurial streak, before deciding that the simplest way to the money would be via the prize on offer at her strict school for the best Koran recitation. And so she affects piety and abandons her regular computer games for one with "Learn The Koran The Easy Way" emblazoned on the box.

Wadjda can be seen alongside Offside and the acclaimed Persepolis as part of a line of powerful films from the Gulf that use girls as protagonists to shine a light on ultra-orthodox Islam’s culture of discrimination. The bike isn’t just a nod to the Italian neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves. “It’s also about acceleration and freedom and mobility,” says Haifa.

And yet despite the clear political intent at its core, Wadjda is a very human film. There be no monsters here. The men, principally Wadjda’s father and the family’s unhelpful driver, are unlovable rather than brutish and perhaps the least sympathetic character, the school’s ultra-religious principal, is a woman. They are, however, all highly believable.

It’s a lesson that came slowly to Haifa. “[The first draft] was very Arabic, political – I’m going to have a statement and I’m going to make people say exactly what I want. I was really happy with my script. Then I went and saw a film and it was almost like an essay and I didn’t feel any sympathy, nothing. And I felt really bad, it was exactly like my script. It was an eye-opener, so I went and changed my script, tried to inject life and take all the characters and bring in my world when I grew up, my experiences, and be honest.”

Although Haifa says there’s a lot of herself in Wadjda, she used one of her nieces (“such a great sense of humour, so full of life”) as the blueprint. But 12-year-old Waad Mohammad makes the mischievous, twinkly-eyed role her own.

The first-time actress wasn’t easy to find. Saudi Arabia has a negligible film industry – its cinemas were closed during the Islamic resurgence of the 80s – and no casting agencies worthy of the name. So Haifa used word of mouth and waited for the amateurs to roll up.

“Waad came in with jeans and trainers, listening to Justin Bieber,” she recalls. “And then she had this amazing voice. And she sang Justin Bieber, she knows the words by heart even though she doesn’t understand them. The first week she just learned how to stand by her mark and then she blossomed. She naturally has it.”

Just as Waad Mohammad is an unorthodox star, Haifa, 38, could scarcely be further from the alpha image of the stereotypical film director. Soft-spoken and standing just a few inches over five feet, she admits she struggled when she first left her remote Saudi home to study English at the American University in Cairo: “It was a disaster. It was direct interaction with the rest of the world and I come from a very shy culture.”

She’s one of 12 children born to Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, who used endless movies on VHS to keep his huge brood entertained. Hollywood and Jackie Chan were favourites – not obvious sources of inspiration for this distinctly realist director, but they instilled in her the value of a happy ending. Despite her seemingly hopeless struggle for self-definition, Wadjda is permitted to finish on the upbeat: music swells, the smile shines brighter than ever and the camera pulls back to show her doing what she most craves.

“I wasn’t trying to [wash Saudi’s dirty laundry], I was trying to put a human face on the culture. I wanted to show human resilience. Saudi’s a harsh place and I didn’t want to make a horrific film as people might have expected. I wanted to make an uplifting happy film about embracing hope. I am always respectful of the culture, I work within the framework. I wasn’t angry making the film.”

Wadjda is her first feature, but not her first film. There have been a few shorts and the 2006 documentary Women Without Shadows about females in the Gulf who don’t wear the orthodox full body cloak. Inevitably, despite the warmth and humour that infuse her art, she’s had her share of death threats from conservatives who feel her very existence threatens the culture.

She says, “I want to do stories about embracing life and hope and empowering girls, it’s very dear to me to make things like this. But the way I do it is very soft. I try to avoid being controversial, but in Saudi you can’t avoid it. Any woman voicing her opinion will be seen as controversial.”

Wadjda is in cinemas in the UK on Friday 19 July. The trailer can be viewed here