The Remarkable Story Behind the First Movie Shot Entirely in Saudi Arabia

Speaking at the Tribeca Film Festival, the director of "Wadjda' offers an inspiring lesson in overcoming obstacles and adversity

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Robin Marchant / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Haifaa Al-Mansour (L) and Gloria Steinem attend the Tribeca Talks: After The Movie 'Wadjda' during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival on Apr. 21, 2013, in New York City

Last night, just before the New York premiere of Wadjda, the first-ever feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour told the crowd about her goals: “I tried to make a film about hope, embracing change and moving ahead.”

In fact, the movie is doubly significant: Haifaa al-Mansour is a woman. The powerful statement of the latter achievement was apparent in the post-screening discussion with al-Mansour, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and Women for Women International(WWI)  founder Zainab Salbi. The event, part of the Tribeca Film Festival, was packed with local cineastes as well as such luminaries as Queen Noor of Jordan.

Wadjda tells the story of an outgoing Saudi girl who decides to enter a Koran-memorization contest at her school, planning to use the prize money to buy herself a bicycle (though the activity, until very recently, was banned to women in the desert kingdom). Though the movie also addresses such issues as child marriage, polygamy and street harassment, it’s a revealing portrait of a modern Saudi girl: Wadjda loves music, wears Chuck Taylors, and has a crush on a neighborhood boy. She wants to move, literally, and go faster than she can on foot.

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Haifaa al-Mansour, who studied at the American University in Cairo and the University of Sydney, described the complicated process of getting the movie made. Prior to Wadjda, she had made three short films and a 2005 full-length documentary, Women Without Shadows.  She worked with the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting lab to fine-tune the Wadjda script. Finding funding and support was difficult — most assumed that it would be impossible for a woman to get a movie made in Saudi Arabia.

When German producers signed on, the next hurdle was in finding a girl to play Wadjda, as many Saudi women are wary of being photographed. They eventually cast Waad Mohammed — she went on to win the best actress award at the Dubai International Film Festival.

The last final obstacle — which they ran into after receiving official permission to film — was getting around restrictions on  women working in public. The solution: having al-Mansourr direct from inside a van, offering instructions via walkie-talkie. “You want to be there for the actors and have the first feeling for the scene,” she said of not being able to be on the shoot in person, “but it made me work harder.”

It should be noted that not every complication arose from gender. Saudi Arabia lacks the infrastructure for filmmaking — the country doesn’t even have movie theaters. (Wadjda will be released there on TV and DVD, al-Mansourr said: she hopes that most Saudis will find it respectful of the culture.)

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Al-Mansour’s points to her own fulfillment of a dream (mirroring that of her movie’s youthful protagonist) as evidence that her country is opening up a bit. “There’s a huge chance for art and women,” she said. “Many things are being granted. They’re small, but it’s changing the mindset.” She sees the country being transformed slowly — and understands that gradual change is necessary in challenging long-held beliefs.

And though the revolutions that spread through the Arab world in recent years did not have a parallel in Saudi Arabia, WWI’s Zainab Salbi suggested that they probably played a part in encouraging the government to allow the pressure to “ventilate” in “negotiated spaces.” (“They want to hear from women—softly,” seconded al-Mansour.)

Much of that pressure to open up is coming from women, Salbi said: “There is a tension in that region and women and girls are the battlefield.” It’s not that the conflict is men-versus-women but that men and women alike disagree about freedoms for women, she clarified, pointing to an oppressive headmistress character from the film as an example of a woman holding other women back.

But even though women are the subject of this conflict, they’re also Salbi’s source of hope for the region. Although the situation in Wadjda and that experienced by the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai are not quite the same, Salbi drew a parallel between the two girls who asked for more than they were being given. Nor do the parallels stop when you leave the Arab world, Steinem observed, drawing a line between prohibitions on a girl riding a bike in Saudi Arabia and government attempts to control women’s bodies and reproductive rights in the United States.

(TIME 100Malala Yousafzai)

“I think we’re just beginning to realize that just as we as human beings are linked, not ranked,” said Steinem, “revolutions are linked, not ranked.”

There’s another piece of evidence that Al Mansour is right, that slow change is coming for the women of Saudi Arabia: Wadjda’s story has, in a way, come true. Earlier this month, a Saudi official announced that, under certain conditions, women are now allowed to ride bicycles in public.

Wadjda will open in U.S. theaters in late August.