Saudis seek Oscar glory for female director who defied death threats

Story highlights

Saudi Arabia submitted the country's first feature film Oscar consideration.

The movie, Wadjda, was written and directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, a woman.

In Saudi Arabia, women cannot be seen in public with men who are not relatives

Al Mansour had to direct the film from inside a van using walkie-talkies.

CNN  — 

Traditionally, Saudi Arabia hasn’t had much time for film. The country boasts no cinemas, and until last year, nothing but a handful of shorts had ever even been filmed on Saudi soil.

It seems the country is looking to make a change, though. For the first time, Saudi Arabia’s Association for Culture and Arts has submitted a film for consideration for an Oscar. This first is especially momentous in light of the fact that the writer-director also happens to be a woman.

The film, called “Wadjda”, is named after its protagonist, a young girl who wants to own a bike. The story, created by Saudi’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, is a parable for female independence in a country renowned for setting limits on women’s movements and ambitions.

“I tried to create a character that is not passive, that has a huge love of life. She wants to embrace and pursue her dreams. A lot of Saudi girls are like that; they have this huge potential, but give up because the culture is very rigid, and they are afraid to challenge everything,” Al Mansour says.

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Filming as a woman in Saudi Arabia – a country where women are not allowed out in public without a guardian – was particularly challenging for Al Mansour, who had to direct from inside, conversing with actors using a walkie-talkie.

“Because Saudi Arabia is a very segregated country, I couldn’t be in the streets when we had our shoot,” she explains.

Film, she says, is not always viewed favorably by Saudi culture.

“Film in general is controversial in Saudi, and there will be people who oppose it because it’s a story told by a woman and because it’s coming from Saudi, and they want to preserve Saudi as this is a very pure place and they think film is corrupt.”

While many are celebrating Al Mansour’s efforts (it’s picked up a fair share of awards on the festival circuit, including three at the Venice Film Festival), she has her critics inside the country. She has even received death threats for her work.

“That doesn’t matter to me. Everyone in the media business in Saudi receives death threats,” she says.

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Still, that the country is eager to showcase the movie shows Saudi Arabia is opening up, both in terms of how they deem film and in regards to women’s rights.

“It’s time for Saudi Arabia to celebrate art. This shows Saudi Arabia is changing,” she says.

“It also shows that Saudi Arabia can be known for more than just oil. It can be known for its culture as well.”