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Saudi Arabia’s first female director breaks boundaries

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Rachel Meehan
WVoN co-editor

Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female director, has broken boundaries with her full length feature debut at the Venice Film Festival this week.

Not only is it the first movie filmed entirely within the Kingdom, it is an authorised production in a country where cinema is banned.

Wadjda” confronts the taboos of conservative Saudi society with the story of a rebellious young girl’s quest to own a bicycle to beat a neighbourhood boy in a race.

However, Wadjda’s mother refuses to buy her a bicycle, as society considers them to be dangerous to girls’ virtue. Undeterred, Wadjda decides to raise the money herself by entering a Koran recitation competition at her school to win the money.

The film was shot in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, with the permission of the authorities as well as support from within the Saudi royal family. Saudi entertainment company Rotana Group, whose studios co-produced “Wadjda,” is owned by the Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

Al Mansour encountered local hostility while filming. She said she was sometimes forced to direct via walkie talkie from a van in some of the more conservative neighbourhoods, where people would have disapproved of her mixing professionally with the men on set.

Despite this, Al Mansour has said that women’s rights in the Kingdom are slowly improving and having a Saudi prince on board showed support from the officialdom.

“[Saudi Arabia]’s opening up, there is a huge opportunity for women now,” she said. “It is not like before, although I can’t say it’s like heaven. Society won’t just accept it, people will put pressure on women to stay home, but we have to fight.”

In Saudi, women have a lower legal status then men and require a male guardian’s permission to work, travel or open a bank account. Saudi law also forbids women driving.

A number of reforms under current monarch King Abdullah have somewhat improved women’s rights. He announced in 2011 that women will be allowed to stand and vote in the 2015 elections. Also, this Olympic games saw Saudi Arabia sending its first female representatives (see WVoN story).

Al Mansour cited the fact that the authorities allowed her to film in Riyadh as evidence that cultural attitudes are changing. It suggests Saudi Arabia, “is embracing art” and Al Mansour thinks the authorities “really want to see more films”.

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