The film director who’s not allowed to go to the movies

Editor’s Note: Each month, Inside the Middle East takes you behind the headlines to see a different side of this diverse region.

Story highlights

Haifaa Al Mansour is billed as Saudi Arabia's first female film director

Her movie Wadjda claims to be the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast

There are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, but a member of the Royal Family runs a film production company

CNN  — 

Haifaa Al Mansour has just directed one of the first feature films ever to be made in Saudi Arabia. But she won’t be able to watch it at her local theater, because cinemas are banned in the kingdom.

The film, called “Wadjda,” after its protagonist, is billed as the first to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast. It is currently in post-production and being touted for worldwide sales at the Cannes Film Festival.

Al Mansour, 39, worked for an oil company until the age of 30, when she decided to give up her job to pursue her passion.

“When I turned 30, I really wanted to have a voice,” said Al Mansour. “People don’t listen to women in Saudi, they just jump to the next man to speak. I loved films and just decided to become a filmmaker.”

She studied film in Sydney, Australia, and has previously made three short films and a documentary. She is Saudi Arabia’s first female film director, according to the production company.

The film, written and directed by Al Mansour, tells the story of an 11-year-old girl growing up in traditional society in the suburbs of Riyadh and desperate for a bicycle, which she’s not allowed.

“I have a niece, she is very bright and always wanted to do things, but her family is traditional and as she grew older wanted her to stay at home like everyone else,” said Al Mansour. “I based the story around her.

“Outdoor activities like riding a bicycle are not allowed for girls. It’s not exactly against the law, but she would get into trouble.”

Al Mansour hopes that Wadjda will help to change attitudes to both women and films in Saudi Arabia. “I hope it will inspire many girls in Saudi to become filmmakers,” she said. “That makes me very proud.

“People have contacted me with death threats, but that doesn’t matter to me. Everyone in the media business in Saudi receives death threats.”

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Al Mansour, a mother of two young children, was helped to achieve her dreams by her liberal upbringing.

She said: “My parents both come from provincial small towns, but they always believed in allowing their daughters to do what they wanted. There’s a lot of pressure on fathers to stop their daughters doing things, but my father never listened to it.”

It took Al Mansour three years to get the right backing for her film. It is a Saudi/German co-production, produced by the Berlin-based Razor Film Produktions with backing and support from Rotana Studios, launched by the Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal.

Al Mansour was keen to work with a European production company to ensure the film would be seen worldwide. Ironically, it is unlikely to be seen in Saudi Arabia until its later television release.

“If people from Saudi want to see it in a theater, they will have to travel to Bahrain,” said Al Mansour. “It’s sad they will have to travel abroad to watch a film that was shot and produced here.”

While she is in Saudi, Al Mansour only watches movies rented from a DVD shop. She has to send her driver to the shop with a list of the titles she wants, because women are not allowed inside.

She said: “It never put me off watching films, but it made me want to show they can’t treat us like that.”

Al Mansour said she faced multiple challenges both casting and shooting in a country with such conservative attitudes.

“Casting a woman in Saudi is almost impossible. It’s difficult to find women who are willing to challenge the norms and appear on camera,” she said.

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Eventually one of Saudi Arabia’s best known television actresses, Reem Abdulla, was chosen for the adult lead role, and at the last minute a young girl was found to play Wadjda.

“Casting the girl took a long time,” said Al Mansour. “We couldn’t advertise for auditions, so it had to be through word of mouth. We looked everywhere around the country and it wasn’t until one week before filming that we found the right girl.”

During filming too, the mixed Saudi and German crew faced resistance.

“Saudi is not the easiest place to work: in a lot of the locations people were hostile because people see the camera as something corrupt,” said Al Mansour.

“We filmed in some conservative neighborhoods where people were angry that there was a camera.”

Al Mansour said she is a judge in the Saudi Film Festival currently being held by Rotana Studios, but that the films are being shown on television because they are not allowed in movie theaters.

Two years ago, the planned Jeddah Film Festival was canceled at the last minute on instructions from the interior ministry, according to Reuters.

The involvement of Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, described by Forbes as Saudi Arabia’s richest capitalist and a nephew of King Abdullah, in Rotana Studios is seen as a sign that cinema will eventually become more widely acceptable in the kingdom.

In 2006, Rotana produced a film called Keif al-Hal, then billed as the first Saudi Arabian feature film. However, it was actually filmed in Dubai.

Al Manour said: “It’s good to have people like Rotana who are progressive and willing to push for it.”

She added: “There are a lot of kids who want to make films. There’s a whole generation using cameras and mobile phones and they are not cut off from the world around them.

“Once films become a reality, movie theaters will become a reality.”

Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Twitter: Presenter Rima Maktabi: @rimamaktabi, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, producer Schams Elwazer @SchamsCNN and writer Catriona Davies @catrionadavies