Saudi's first female film-maker scores

The film Wadjda, soon to be screened in Singapore, scores several firsts.

The story of a rebellious girl who dreams of owning a bicycle is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.

It was made by that country's first female film-maker and was its first-ever submission into the Best Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards.

Speaking to Life! through Skype from Bahrain, where she lives, Haifaa al-Mansour, 39, talked about the difficulties of shooting on location in Saudi Arabia.

Yes, she says, it was hard for her to direct a film when the country's laws on sexual segregation dictate that men and women cannot work in the same place.

She had to direct from inside a van, watching and guiding the action through remote monitors and walkie-talkies.

The job for the the Saudi-German co-production was complicated by how the crew were sometimes regarded with suspicion and asked to leave the neighbourhood by the more conservative locals.

But the biggest obstacle was the lack of infrastructure, she says.

There are no cinemas in the kingdom, as they are seen as un-Islamic. Shooting on location is an unfamiliar concept, and owners of spaces prefer to err on the side of caution, she adds. "It was sometimes difficult to lease a place to shoot because people didn't know what to do with a film crew, whether shooting is legal or illegal," says al-Mansour, who wrote and directed the feature.

"When we wanted to shoot in a shopping mall, we rented the mall from the owner."

"But a few hours before shooting, he said 'I don't want you to do this, I am nervous'. We told him we had all the permits and it was not illegal, but he still said no."

The team lost a day and a valuable chunk of their small production budget searching for another mall, she says.

The drama Wadjda is among the 19 films screened as part of this year's Singapore International Festival Of The Arts' pre-festival programme The O.P.E.N

It has a Bafta nomination (for Best Film Not In English) and Los Angeles Film Festival audience award.

It tells the story of plucky Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), an 11-year-old girl who yearns for a bicycle of her own, in spite of warnings from her mother and teachers that such toys are inappropriate for girls and might hurt her virginity.

"I wanted to make a full Saudi product that feels authentic. I want the audience to know what the streets are like, and what being inside a sandstorm is like," she says.

She now lives in Bahrain with her American diplomat husband and two young children.

She attended film school in Sydney, Australia.

"It is important to push boundaries. Saudi Arabia right now is opening up. There is now a place for the arts. If you told me that six or seven years ago, I could not imagine it."

Book it


When: June 29, 7.30pm

Where: 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road

Admission: With the O.P.E.N pass, $45, which permits entry to all screenings and most arts performances

Info: Rated PG, 100 minutes, in Arabic with English subtitles, as part of the Singapore International Festival Of The Arts' The O.P.E.N. programme

This article was first published on June 19, 2014.
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