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With 'Wadjda,' Haifaa Mansour makes her mark in Saudi cinema

In a country where women can't freely move around, Saudi director Haifaa Mansour covertly films the provocative story of a girl's quest for a bicycle.

September 06, 2013|By Rebecca Keegan
  • Haifaa Monsour is the writer-director of "Wadjda," the first feature film believed to be entirely shot inside Saudi Arabia, a country that bans cinema.
Haifaa Monsour is the writer-director of "Wadjda," the first… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

The production lost two days to sandstorms. The crew faced a last-minute scramble when the nervous owner of a mall changed his mind about allowing filming there. Some days locals chased the cameras away; other days they brought platters of lamb and rice to the set, and asked to be extras.

Meanwhile, the director hid in a van, speaking to her cast via walkie-talkie.

In Saudi Arabia, where driving a car is a subversive act for a woman, a 39-year-old mother of two has done something remarkable: written and directed what her distributor believes is the first feature film shot entirely in the ultraconservative kingdom.

PHOTOS: Scenes from Haifaa Mansour's 'Wadjda'

Haifaa Mansour is the director of "Wadjda," a drama about a plucky 10-year-old girl who enrolls in a Koran recitation competition in order to win money for a bicycle she's forbidden by law to ride.

Like her young protagonist, Mansour's own story is one of feminine moxie.

In a sly protest of the country's ban on women behind the wheel, she drove herself to her wedding in a golf cart. Because women in Saudi Arabia can't mingle publicly with men outside their families, she shot her movie covertly on the streets of the capital, Riyadh. With movie theaters banned, she screened "Wadjda" in two foreign embassies and a cultural center.

Petite, self-assured, wearing white high-tops and blue nail polish, Mansour is modern in both her fashion and bearing. She speaks English quickly and colloquially, dropping frequent "you knows" into conversation. And she isn't afraid to counter misperceptions about her homeland, as when she gently corrected Bill Maher for calling Mecca the Saudi capital during a recent appearance on his HBO show.

Laced with empathy and humor, "Wadjda" is a quietly provocative portrait of a culture that straddles the centuries, where men wear the ancient white thobe but carry the latest iPads and women hold important jobs as doctors and news anchors but have yet to vote in an election.

"I didn't want to make a movie about women being raped or stoned," Mansour said in an interview in Beverly Hills in June. "For me it is the everyday life, how it's hard. For me, it was hard sometimes to go to work because I cannot find transportation. Things like that build up and break a woman."

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The eighth of 12 children of a poet, Mansour grew up in a small town in a home that she describes as nurturing for a little girl.

"My family is very traditional, but my parents are very supportive, very kind," she said. "I never felt I can't do things because I'm a woman."

When Mansour was a teen, her mother removed the light veil she wore while picking her daughter up from school, a gesture that mortified the young woman at the time, but empowers her when she reflects on it now.

Though movie theaters have been shuttered in Saudi Arabia for decades for religious reasons, Mansour said her father, like others, often rented VHS tapes at Blockbuster for the family to watch — she grew up on Jackie Chan movies, Bollywood productions, Egyptian cinema and Disney animated films. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was a particular favorite.

"In small-town Saudi, there is nothing to do. You don't get to exercise your emotions because nothing much is happening, you know?" she said. "So to see people falling in love and fighting, it's so powerful, you see beyond your small town."

After earning her bachelor's degree in comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, she returned to Saudi Arabia but quickly felt stymied.

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"Going back to Saudi as a young woman, trying to assert yourself in the workplace, you have all those ideas … and all of a sudden you realize because you are a woman you are not heard," she said. "It was such a frustrating moment in my life. It was as if you are screaming in a vacuum."

The idea of women holding jobs still unnerves some Saudi men — writer Abdullah Mohammed Daoud recently encouraged his more than 97,000 Twitter followers to sexually harass female grocery store clerks to intimidate women from working.

Recalling the freedom she found in movies, Mansour decided to make a short film with her siblings serving as cast and crew, a thriller about a male serial killer who hides under the black abaya worn by Muslim women. Her work — two more shorts, a documentary and a stint hosting a talk show for a Lebanese network — focused largely on the untold stories of Saudi women.

In 2005, at a U.S. embassy screening of her documentary, "Women Without Shadows," Mansour met her future husband, American diplomat Bradley Neimann. They now have two children, 2 and 5, and live in Bahrain, where Neimann works for the State Department.

When her husband was posted in Australia, Mansour pursued a master's in film studies at the University of Sydney, and wrote the script that became "Wadjda."

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