Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour, right, and actress Waad Mohammed of the… (Daniel dal Zennaro, EPA )
TELLURIDE, Colo. — Wearing high-top tennis shoes and headphones, 11-year-old Wadjda doesn't look like much of a revolutionary. But in filmmaker Haifaa Mansour's new Saudi Arabian movie, the young girl is just that — as is Mansour herself.
Having its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, "Wadjda" has become one of the event's most talked-about movies, as much as for what's on screen as for how the story was brought to the screen.
The first Saudi feature directed by a woman, "Wadjda" was made entirely inside the repressive country. Owing to strict religious edicts, Mansour occasionally had to direct her actors from inside a van some 100 feet from her set, lest she be seen mingling with men, and she received death threats for an earlier documentary that focused on young women like Wadjda who are willing to buck Islamic tradition.
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As soon as "Wadjda" starts, it's clear the title character (played by Waad Mohammed) is unlike many of her middle-school peers. She listens to Grouplove on one of her mixtapes, doesn't always wear the proper head scarf and has a secret side business weaving bracelets for classmates. Wadjda, who lives with her mother and frequently absent father, spends almost as much time in the school administration offices as in the classroom, where she is an indifferent student struggling with her understanding of rules and the Koran.
Wadjda's primary goal is saving enough money to buy a bike, even though (or perhaps because) she's been told that girls don't ride bikes or do much of anything else that can be seen by men. When Wadjda hears of a school Koran competition whose prize money will allow her to purchase her bike, she suddenly becomes a devoted student.
The film is looking for a U.S. theatrical distributor.
As written and directed by the 38-year-old Mansour, educated in Cairo and Sydney, Australia, Wadjda is a familiarly disobedient pre-teen. Yet because her rebellion unfolds inside one of the world's most authoritarian regimes — so strict that cinemas are banned, meaning "Wadjda" likely will never be screened in its native land — even a small act of defiance looks much larger in context.
Mansour, married to an American diplomat with whom she lives in Bahrain, said she intentionally avoided making a didactic drama and chose to film inside the country even though it made her job tougher.
"I want to work within the system so that I can engage people rather than fight with them," said the writer-director, one of 12 kids raised in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, by parents she describes as liberal. "But it's harder to work within the boundaries. And as a woman, it was very hard for me to direct this film."
Though the Saudi government, which could nominate "Wadjda" as its official entry for the foreign language Academy Award, did not censor her script, Mansour did not exactly enjoy easy sailing in making the film this year near Riyadh.
Casting was difficult, largely because "a lot of people do not think that it is honorable to be in front of a camera," Mansour said. Rather than give especially conservative neighborhoods cause to call the religious police, she was obliged to direct scenes remotely, not mingling with her all-male crew in public sight.
But some of the biggest accommodations might be in the script itself, which carefully balances its coming-of-age tale with a critical appraisal of fundamentalism.
"I think it's very important for artists to be part of society and not look like elitists who think they understand more than other people do," Mansour said. "I tried to make it uplifting, but for sure it has a critique about the situation in Saudi Arabia."
Having been shown countless DVDs (which are legal) by her parents while growing up, Mansour loved movies as a child. But she didn't consider becoming a filmmaker until she was 30, stuck in a professional life she found unrewarding.
"I was working at an oil company, and I thought no one was listening to me," Mansour said. "I felt like I had no voice of my own."
After getting a master's degree in film at the University of Sydney, Mansour made three short films, including a documentary that interviewed progressive young Saudi women. Some Saudis considered the film a form of blasphemy, with one texting the director, "Your coffin is prepared and we will try to find you." But the filmmaker was not scared into abandoning her career.
"I didn't take it personally," she said. "Debate in society is healthy. But I don't want to be killed for sure."
Mansour said she believes her native country has changed materially in the last several years for the better and that movies are no longer considered an intolerable evil. "It says something about the country that I was able to shoot there," she said.
And yet there is a long way to go, she said, and that's where all of the arts, including cinema, can play a role.
"It's hard to break tradition," she said. "But it's time to move ahead."
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