Saudi Arabia's First Female Filmmaker: We Found Wonderful Girls -- but They Won't Act

That the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia (a country with no commercial theaters) was directed by a woman (in a country where women still famously cannot drive) would have been enough to spark a media firestorm. That the film, Wadjda, which hit U.S. theaters last week, also happens to be good -- "a stunningly assured debut," wrote Slate; "sharply observed, deceptively gentle," wrote the New York Times -- has made it, and its photogenic director, Haifaa al-Mansour, irresistible.  

Mansour's story about a young Saudi girl's quest to buy a bike -- so she can race her male friend Abdullah -- explores the lives and roles of women in one of the most conservative, traditional countries in the Middle East. It introduces us to the rhythms of daily household life in Saudi Arabia, a world that few outsiders ever see.

Mansour spoke to Foreign Policy this week about losing access to locations hours before a shoot, why it was so hard to recruit actors for her film, and the curious relationship between Saudi women and their drivers. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

FP: Why was it so important to you that this film be shot in Saudi Arabia?

HM: I think it is to maintain the authenticity of the film and bring a real representation of the culture. I wanted to bring life as it is and have people peek into it. I don't think there is any imagery coming from Saudi Arabia. It's such a closed country. I'm not sure if there are misconceptions. I think there is nothing -- no reference point at all.

Riyadh in particular has a TV scene. There was a bit of infrastructure that we could capitalize on and use. It is doable. Why do a film about Saudi outside, if you can do it in Saudi?

FP: You famously had to shoot out of a van, to remain separate from the men you were working with. What other difficulties did you encounter while shooting in Riyadh?

HM: People are not used to it, so they get nervous when we are in their neighborhood. Sometimes we'd lose access to a location. Whenever we were granted access, we just hoped they wouldn't call us two hours before and tell us not [to come].

But I think a lot of young filmmakers now are reconsidering filming in Saudi. A lot of people leave. They prefer to work in Dubai or Bahrain or Kuwait where it is a little bit more tolerant, more relaxed. But now with the success of this film I feel they understand what it means to have an authentic product.

FP: Did you get a lot of questions when you were filming?

HM: Yeah, people were curious. Some neighborhoods, they want to be extras, they want to act. It depends a lot on the place. In more conservative places they would be really angry, and just want us out -- they don't care what it's all about.

We tried to respect the laws and the traditions as much as possible. It was very important to me to avoid conflict with the people who are very conservative, they don't like cinema, they don't like film. For us it was very important to respect that and we were very aware of our surroundings.

We had Saudi crew who had been doing TV for so long and they know that this is the way they can function: to avoid conflict and to work in certain places.

FP: Can you tell me about the casting process and trying to find women and girls to act in your movie?

HM: When we were trying to fill the roles, it was hard. Every time we found a girl and we think she is right she goes home and has second thoughts, and calls me and says no and we have to look again.

We ask for girls a certain age, but we always get the little ones -- it's hard to get older girls, because most of them become conservative, and then they don't want to come.

We had lots of auditions, and we found really wonderful girls, amazing, but then they won't act. They would come here, and give the audition, but then they don't have the courage to continue. And for me, I was sad for them. Because I knew they wanted to be there but they just could not take that decision. They took the decision to come and do the audition but when it came to, 'you were chosen,' they'd freak out.

FP: That's sad.

HM: That's very sad, right?

Hopefully it changes with the success this film has had. Now, there is more respect. It's associated with national pride, and creates some respect for the industry so I hope that changes a little.

A lot of actresses working in Saudi, they know that they are challenging a lot in their society. Performance art is not respected; they know they are standing against that. It is hard for a woman in a place like Saudi that is very tribal, conservative, where a woman's reputation is everything. To challenge this and do something that you really believe in is very admirable.

It would be easier for a Westernized person, for whom, you know, Saudi Arabia is part of their life only during summer. But when someone comes from a real Saudi background, it's amazing. That is why I have so much admiration for Reem Abdullah [who plays Wadjda's mother in the film]. She comes from one of the most conservative tribes in Saudi Arabia, and yet she proved herself. She's number one on TV. And for a woman like that, I feel -- she doesn't speak English, you know? -- she's very strong. It's quite inspiring because you can't imagine what it is like.

FP: Most of the discussion of the film has focused on women in Saudi Arabia, but the film also briefly touches on questions of class, with Iqbal, the driver.

HM: He's a guest worker, and for me those people, they come with hopes to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a rich place and I feel it should provide more training. They want to change their life, they came for a better life. They came to a rich place, and they get confronted with a different reality -- they lack of lot of education, they lack a lot of skills. A lot of people complain about these kind of changes in the society and how the streets are becoming dangerous. That's more of why we should provide training and give them the better life they aspire to so they contribute bettering to the society.

For me the relationship between women and their drivers is a very funny one, because the women, they think they are the bosses, because they pay the driver, but the driver knows that they cannot go anywhere without them, so it's always a power struggle between the two.

FP: Any ideas about future projects you're working on?

HM: I want to write another story that's set in Saudi, also about young people, but maybe not as young as Wadjda -- a little older, trying to find their space in the society. Saudi Arabia is a fascinating place because there's so much money, and people are becoming modern but still they abide by traditional ideas and so there is always this huge conflict with modernity coming in to that very conservative society. That creates a lot of situations that I think are worth documenting.



20 Signs Iran Is Serious About a Nuclear Deal

Is the world on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran?

With the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York fast approaching next week, it's a question that is all but certainly being debated in foreign ministries around the world. But given the lack of clarity over who makes final policy decisions in Tehran, and the long history of failed diplomatic agreements between Iran and the West, it's a devilishly difficult question to answer -- and answer definitively. 

Still, the past few weeks have undoubtedly been encouraging. Every day, it seems, Iran has made another move that appears to signal its willingness to end the stalemate over the country's nuclear program and roll back the sanctions that have had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. Here are 20 signs (and one caveat) that this time around the mullahs really are serious about rapprochement and reform.

1.  Iranian President Hasan Rouhani pledges that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.

2.  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorses diplomacy with the West, saying it is time for his country to adopt a posture of "heroic leniency."

3.  Rouhani takes to the Washington Post to urge his "counterparts to seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election" and to announce that his government is ready "to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition."

4.  French President François Hollande announces that he will meet with Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

5.  Iran frees 11 prominent political prisoners, including the human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.

6.  Rouhani and President Obama exchange a series of letters that the Iranian leader says "could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future."

7.  Rouhani gives his widely respected foreign minister, Javad Zarif, responsibility for handling the country's nuclear negotiations.

8.  Shortly after winning control of the nuclear portfolio, Zarif opens a Twitter account and uses it to wish Jews a happy new year; in a Twitter exchange with Nancy Pelosi's daughter, he emphasizes that the man most responsible for Iran's history of Holocaust denial is now out of office.

9.  Rouhani also tweets a Rosh Hashanah greeting to the world's Jews, wishing them a "blessed" new year. (The only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament is also accompanying Rouhani to the U.N. General Assembly.)

10.  The Iranian government eases the terms of the house arrest imposed on two opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decides that their cases will be taken up by the country's supreme national security council.

11.  Rouhani signals he may be open to easing restrictions on the Internet, saying that "in the age of digital revolution, one cannot live or govern in a quarantine."

12.  Iranian Internet users are briefly able to access Twitter and Facebook without having to bypass the government firewall, though the services are quickly restricted a day later as authorities claim the development was the result of a technical glitch.

13.  Rouhani says he would like to reduce tensions between the United States and Iran, calling the strained relationship "an old wound, which must be healed."

14.  Rouhani calls for negotiations to end the impasse over his country's nuclear program, but emphasizes that the United States must take the first step.

15.  Rouhani appoints a cabinet dominated by moderates, many of whom served under a moderate former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani.  

16.  Rouhani condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria and in a tweet urges the "international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in #Syria," though he later emphasizes that the Middle East "doesn't need another war" and that any action in Syria "should be based on intl law, lead to more stability in region & reduce terrorism."

17.  In a speech to Revolutionary Guard commanders, Rouhani claims that Iran will support whomever the Syrian people choose as their leader, even if that person is not the country's staunch ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

18.  Rouhani calls for a less intrusive state and more freedoms for Iranians, arguing that "a powerful and capable government does not mean a government which meddles in and is in control of all affairs, restricts people and their lives, and meddles in people's private lives."

19.  Iran frees six of eight Slovaks who had been arrested while paragliding in Iran and accused of spying.

20.  The sultan of Oman becomes the first foreign leader to visit Iran since Rouhani took power, sparking speculation in the Iranian media that he may mediate talks between Iran and the West on the country's nuclear program. (Subsequent reports suggest the sultan has indeed ferried letters between Obama and Rouhani.)

The Caveat

The question that remains is whether these moves signal a fundamental change in Tehran's strategic thinking -- or whether they are part of a ploy to ease international sanctions while the country's nuclear program steams ahead. It's worth keeping in mind that Rouhani knows a thing or two about hoodwinking the West. In a speech delivered some time between October and November of 2004, Rouhani explained how Iran had been able to engage with the West while at the same time making progress on its nuclear program.

"While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.... in fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan. Today, we can convert yellowcake into UF4 and UF6, and this is a very important matter," Rouhani observed, referring to two key materials in the nuclear enrichment process. Moreover, Rouhani explained that once Iran attains a nuclear weapon, the West will have no choice but to accept the country as a nuclear power. "If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice -- that we do possess the technology -- then the situation will be different," he said. "The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold." Today, Iran is further along in that process than it was in 2004.

While a nine-year-old speech by no means puts the lie to Iran's recent actions, Rouhani's comments serve as exhibit A for why Western diplomats are approaching the latest developments with supreme caution.