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The Remarkable—and First—Movie Filmed Entirely In Saudi Arabia

Director Haifaa al-Mansour insists Wadjda, her movie about a Saudi girl who marches to the beat of her own drum, which opens in the U.S. Friday, isn’t a “feminist film.” That may be why it’s such a good one.

“I come from Saudi Arabia, and it’s segregated, so if I want to make a film about my life and experiences, it’s mostly going to be about women,” Mansour, who is Saudi Arabia's first female director, said with a shrug when we sat down together this week. “I’m not a person driven by ideology.”

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a less ideological film about defying gender norms in a country where women are legally required to have a male guardian and are expected to cover themselves head-to-toe every time they leave the house. The protagonist, Wadjda, is a ten-year-old girl just growing wise to these realities, and her insubordination is often unconscious. There’s nothing intentionally insurrectionist in the fact that she gets along better with the little boy down the street than the girls at school, and she can’t help that her favorite sneakers are beat-up, her head scarf constantly askew. (In the U.S., she would be called a “tomboy,” rail-skinny with spiky elbows and a total disregard for rules.) As the film progresses, we see a certain social awareness start to take shape, but it is personal, not political.

Mansour says this tight focus on her protagonist was, in part, a practical necessity. She was making the film for a Saudi audience—the only one that could truly understand the strictures its female characters face, and the one that needed to hear its message—and she didn’t want to run the risk that it wouldn’t be shown there. “I don’t want to work in a vacuum,” she explained. The director chose a child for her heroine partly because pre-adolescents aren’t so rigidly circumscribed in Saudi society, and she needed Wadjda to be able to run around. The movie is all about mobility: It centers on Wadjda’s efforts to buy herself a bicycle so that she can beat her friend, Abdullah, in a race. Every time she reveals her plan, however, she’s greeted with a chorus of “girls don’t ride bikes!” A bike is anathema to feminine virtue, but it is also freedom from a life like Wadjda’s mother’s, who is stranded at home every time her grouchy driver decides not to show up. The right to drive has been a hotly politicized issue in Saudi Arabia for years, and it says a great deal about Mansour’s deftness as a filmmaker that the coveted bicycle can be both a potent symbol and the linchpin of a classical, poetically simple plot. 

At its heart, the movie is a conventional coming-of-age tale, skillfully executed down to its sniffle-inducing final scene. Saudi Arabia is its backdrop more than its subject, and it presents the country with the nuance only a native could master. The critique is unambiguous, as in a scene where Wadjda writes her name on a notecard and pins it to her father’s family tree, which only records the births of sons. But Mansour’s attitude toward her culture is not wholesale rejection. The pride Wadjda takes in learning to sing the verses of the Koran for a recitation contest is without caveat or irony. This “soft” feminism paid off: Though Mansour says the movie was controversial, Saudi Arabia has submitted Wadjda as its Oscar bid

That official approval was hard-won; the story behind the making of Wadjda illustrates just what an unlikely event this film is. Mansour was determined that Wadjda would be the first feature-length movie ever filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, as well as the first with a female lead. This meant that she had to direct from inside a van when they did scenes on the street, since women can’t work with men in public places, and the crew was male. She had a monitor inside the vehicle and a walkie-talkie through which, she jokes, she “screamed” at the actors and crew. The shooting was slow, and Mansour was forced to cut scenes. All the while, they struggled with funding; as Mansour says, "people did not believe in a simple film about a girl with a bicycle." Luckily for us, Mansour, like her plucky heroine, was not deterred.

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.