Haifaa Al Mansour's remarkable debut Wadjda, the first feature-length film to be shot entirely within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, premiered out of competition at this week's Venice International Film Festival. Paying homage to Vittoria De Sica's 1948 Italian neorealist Bicycles Thieves, the story replaces De Sica's father-and-son dynamic with a tale of bonding between a mother and daughter.
Wadjda, played by the 12-year-old star Waad Mohammed, is a rebellious 10-year-old who wears high-top trainers to school, peeking out from under her robes, while her peers sport classic black leather shoes. She is a fighter, her competitiveness often landing her in turmoil.
When Abdullah, a neighbourhood boy, goads Wadjda that she can't catch him because he's too fast on his bike, the young girl vows to purchase a green bike and beat Abdullah in a race, despite being repeatedly told that girls do not ride bikes.
When her mum refuses to sanction the purchase, Wadjda attempts to raise the money herself. She charms the shopkeeper into putting it on hold for her, while selling homemade bracelets and extorting small sums for favours. Then, a school announcement that a Quran-reading contest will have a cash prize suddenly awakens a modicum of devotion in an otherwise uninterested girl. Meanwhile, Wadjda's mother is facing the prospect of her husband taking a second wife because she has not given him a son.
Speaking to The National at Venice's Hotel Excelsior after the film's successful world premiere, the director Al Mansour talks of the inspiration for the tale: "I come from a very small town in Saudi Arabia and I went to public schools all my life, so I wanted to show that system. My parents are very traditional in that I'm the eighth child out of 12 but, even so, my parents are quite liberal. Growing up, all my friends and other relatives never had a chance to do certain things because it's such a limiting environment for women."
It was through watching Hollywood, Bollywood and Egyptian films with her father at home that Al Mansour fell in love with cinema. Although there are no movie houses in Saudi Arabia, the father and daughter took advantage of the country's DVD rental market. Al Mansour went on to finish a degree in literature at the American University in Cairo, then completed a master's in directing and film studies at the University of Sydney, Australia.
International acclaim for her award-winning 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows made the issue of opening up cinemas in Saudi Arabia a front-page discussion. Al Mansour was both commended and vilified for her work.
As demonstrated in Wadjda, Al Mansour is an expert at skirting the grey line between acceptable discussion and transgression. "I work within the boundaries and the system and tell stories that are meaningful. I think people appreciate that the world over," she says.
"Maybe Wadjda is controversial for a more conservative audience, but I try not to push it. I just show my story and it's hard to find that line and not push too much.
"People want to see what is happening in Saudi Arabia. I want to make films about the country that empower more female filmmakers. It will be interesting to see how artists contribute [to political discussion] in the Middle East, because there are a lot of conservative ideologies coming up in Egypt and Tunisia and artists now have a role to play in encouraging tolerance."
On why she chose to make a film about children, Al Mansour says: "The society is bizarre and I wanted to show the world [this] through a fresh eye. So you need a child to speak out, because children question anything that doesn't make sense to them."
Al Mansour also sees the young as being a force for change. "This conflict between modernity and tradition in Saudi Arabia is very interesting. It's is a very rich nation; every kid has access to the internet, iPads, huge televisions," she says. "Every kid has a Facebook now and the government can't control that, so by doing this film, I wanted to show that the younger generation will carry on changing Saudi Arabia."
For others wanting to shoot films in the Kingdom she has some advice. "Saudi is not an easy place to shoot in. Before shooting our film we didn't know what would happen to us while filming on the streets. Also, there is no infrastructure such as labs to develop the film. There are no trained people. We needed to search for someone to hold a light, let alone be a gaffer. Casting a woman is also difficult, regardless of me being a female director. Women are not supposed to be in front of the camera - it's seen as such an un-honourable thing to do."
Al Mansour sought producers from outside the region and chose a German production company, Razor Studios, that had worked on the Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad's 2005 Golden Globe-winning Paradise Now. In Saudi Arabia, the film will be distributed on DVD and shown on Saudi TV, says the co-producer Fahad Al Sukait of Saudi Prince Waleed Bin Talal's production company, Rotana Studios.
“Prince Waleed called me today to congratulate me on the success of the film. By letting us shoot, it shows that the country is opening up and that there is help for women to get their voice heard from both the inside and outside. I think there are so many good female filmmakers in the region because film is a great way for our voice to be heard, not by fighting but by making art through cinema.”