Haifaa Al Monsour
Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdulrahman al-Guhani
(Koch Media; US theatrical: 13 Sep 2013; 2012)
Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al Mansour has expressed before that the main character of her debut film Wadjda is, surprisingly, not autobiographical. Why surprisingly? Because as performed by little Waad Mohammed, Wadjda feels so vibrant, her personality so honest and her emotions so real that it’s hard to fathom that she’s a fictitious creation. She’s the rare kind of character we could swear keeps on living after we leave the theater. In the film, Mohammed plays the title character, a rebellious girl with one major dream: to buy the green bicycle she sees every day on her way to school. The problem is that girls don’t ride bikes in Saudi Arabia, their use is reserved for boys and whenever Wadjda feels like riding a bike she has to borrow her friend’s (Abdullrahman Algohani) and do so in secret.
Then one day Wadjda receives divine intervention in the shape of a Qu’ran reciting contest, which offers a cash prize that would let her buy the bicycle. She enters the competition, setting the stage for a complex, if simply told, tale of what it’s like to desire freedom in a society that tells you it’s forbidden. “[Saudi Arabians] are very political in nature” explained Al Mansour when we spoke to her in mid-September, “people heard about the movie and they wanted to get involved” she added.
The first time feature length director (she had directed shorts and one documentary in the past) insisted from the start that she wanted to shoot her film in Saudi Arabia, even if she knew the process would be practically impossible to achieve. Since the 1980’s Saudi Arabia banned cinema, and it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that some movie houses have began to re-open. “A lot of people were talking about [the movie]” continued the director “[and] even if they didn’t know how to, they still wanted to help”. Like this she was able to assemble a functioning crew that sometimes had to shoot from inside of vans to prevent being discovered.
Watching the film however you don’t get a sense of this guerrilla approach, Al Mansour after all is a natural born aesthete (she studied comparative literature in Cairo and went to film school in Australia) who was able to continue the naturalistic aesthetics of cinema in her part of the world. When asked about whether she thought she would need to stop production, the usually high-spirited director lowered her voice, her tone becoming serious as she remembered “I was worried we would go bankrupt and we’d never finish the film”.
However she remained confident because she was sure that her movie wasn’t going against the culture, ““we lost locations, had delays in schedule, so many things seemed to go against us” she continued, “I tried not to make a political film”. Inevitably Wadjda will be perceived as a political film because it represents a series of firsts; it is the first film to be completely shot in Saudi Arabia and the first Saudi Arabian film directed by a woman. “I don’t want to fight, I want to make a film, I don’t want to defend ideologies” she expressed.
When asked about how she ended up becoming so obsessed with filmmaking, she laughed out loud and said “I loved Jackie Chan!”, growing up in a family made out of twelve children (she is number eight), their father - famous poet Abdul Rahman Mansour - would get access to films he would screen at home for all his children. “[We watched] a lot of duds, blockbusters” she explained, “lots of Hollywood movies”.
“[Growing up] I never thought I’d become a filmmaker” she continued, but as an adult she realized that there was something missing from the career she’d chosen, she entered a period of insatisfaction that forced her to pursue something that would make sense, “I wanted to be happy so I made a film!”. Continuing looking back at her childhood she revealed “when I was growing up I wrote plays” she said, “I was so happy [watching how others reacted to her work], and I remember wanting to write to make people laugh”.
For what it’s worth, Wadjda doesn’t feel like a director’s first feature film, it has a sense of purpose and assured direction that make it feel almost effortless. When asked about how she found aesthetic inspiration to achieve this docudrama feel, she added “[we had] no access to documentaries, nothing other than the mainstream, only blockbusters” she continued remembering how in awe she was of the visuals and the movie stars, before suddenly remembering that besides Chan, she also truly loved Bruce Lee.
The influence of American became evident again when we asked her about the process of casting Mohammed. “We didn’t use a casting agency, because there are no casting agencies” she explained, confessing that Mohammed got the part because she reminded her of her niece (not herself as critics would assume). She explained how the first time actress arrived to the audition already dressed like Wadjda, she showed up, did a test and told the adults present how she was obsessed with Justin Bieber, before proceeding to perform one of his songs for them. “She didn’t speak one word of English, but she knew the Justin Bieber song” remembered the director.
When asked about the way in which she approached writing characters as complex as Wadjda, her mother (played beautifully by Reem Abdullah) and a severe school headmistress (Ahd Kamel) Al Mansour explained “I try to focus on characters”. “[The story] is not about good people, the situations are much more complex” she added, before continuing about the way in which she found the perfect actors for her unique ensemble, “I try to find people and give them a story” she stated.
For some viewers, many of the concepts in the film might seem off putting, or well, foreign. We see how Wadjda’s father (Sultan Al Assaf) leaves her mother and marries another woman, simply because she can not give him a male heir. It would be easy to villainize or condemn characters like the father or the headmistress without understanding why they act like they do and in between laughs Al Mansour confessed “my fear is that it will get lost in translation”. However she believes her story is universal and accessible.
The day we spoke to the director, the film had just been selected to represent Saudi Arabia at this year’s Academy Awards. When asked about the prospect of maybe becoming the first Saudi filmmaker to be nominated for an Oscar, she humbly expressed “I’m just very grateful for this journey, I’ve met people I never expected to meet and everyone has been warm and kind to my movie”. She goes silent, stops to think and almost speaking to herself she added “I’m just happy to have a film out”.
* * *
Wadjda is now playing in select cities and will continue to expand throughout the season. Follow Haifaa Al Mansour on Twitter @haifaamansour