Saudi Arabia is experiencing many firsts in terms of filmmaking, specifically with the film Wadjda, which follows an 11-year-old Saudi girl on her pursuit to obtain a bicycle. The movie is the first by director Haifaa al-Mansour, the first to ever be shot entirely in the country, and the first to ever be shot be shot entirely in the country by a woman. Her film premiered with standing ovations and rave reviews at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, and since then, al-Mansour has gone on record about what it's like to be a filmmaker in a kingdom without cinemas.
Wadjda, which takes after the name of its protagonist played by Waad Mohammed, who won Best Actress at the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival, is a story of "hope, embracing change, and moving ahead" according to al-Mansour. Set in the capital Riyadh, the story is seemingly simple: a young girl wants to buy a bike so she can race a neighborhood boy. The implications of this, however, are much more complex. Activities like riding bikes is against the law, but Wadjda, who wears Chuck Taylors and converses with boys in public, is set apart from her peers by being outgoing and rebellious. She's funny. She's adventurous. She personifies the spirit al-Mansour set out to create with her film.
Here's the trailer for Wadjda:
A recent Time.com article describes how it took al-Mansour 5 years to make Wadjda. She had made three short films and one feature documentary previously, then worked on her script for her first feature at the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting lab, before setting out to find funding. When Berlin-based production company Razor Film (Paradise Now, Waltz With Bashir) signed on, production was under way.
Describing what filmmaking is like in Saudi Arabia, al-Mansour says:
It's difficult, indeed, when you film in a country where there is no cinema -- a country that lacks cinematic skills and equipment. It's very difficult to film in Riyadh. We had a permit and we could film in the streets, but people are so conservative in Saudi Arabia. They reject the camera and are afraid of being filmed.
She goes on to explain how she had to keep a low profile while filming, since female presence was unusual. She describes how she had to hide in a van and talk to her actors through walkie talkies. Here is an interview she gave to the folks at the Doha Film Institute that goes into detail about her experience filming in Riyadh:
Saudi cinemas were closed in the 1980s, and only just recently have some been reopened. Al-Mansour explains that if people in Saudi Arabia want to see her film, they must travel to Bahrain, or wait until it is available online. She goes on to say that cinema is still controversial in Saudi Arabia, but hopes that her film as well as other Saudi films become available to Saudi audiences within the kingdom.
Wadjda had its theatrical run in several European countries before premiering in the US. Despite Sony Pictures Classics, who worked with Razor Films and producers Roman Paul and Gerhard Meixner previously on Waltz With Bashir, acquiring the North American rights in 2012, the film is unfortunately difficult to find and watch -- quite possibly impossible (maybe I'm not looking in the right places.)
Its theatrical release in the UK is set for July of this year, so hopefully that will also signify a wider release in other parts of the world, or perhaps its availability online.
Have you seen Wadjda? What are your thoughts on/experiences with the development of Saudi cinema?