Haifaa Al Mansour was the first ever woman director from the highly restrictive Saudi Arabia to make a movie. It was called Wadjda, and was screened to critical acclaim at the Venice Film Festival last year.
This year, Venice – often referred to as a haven for romance on water – has decided to offer a bit of that paradise to Al Mansour by appointing her as the President of the international jury for the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for a Debut movie.
Al Mansour studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo and completed a Master’s course in Film Studies at the University of Sydney. The success of her short movies, and her path-breaking 2005 documentary, Women Without Shadows, influenced a new wave of Saudi filmmakers, encouraging theatres to open for the first time in the history of the kingdom.
While Al Mansour is hailed outside her country, she is often vilified inside for provoking debates and discussions on taboo issues.
As I wrote in my columns last year, Al Mansour had the pluck and courage to shoot Wadjda right inside the kingdom, a nation which discourages and even stops men and women from mingling with each other. This made it awfully difficult for her to direct male actors in outdoor scenes. “I had to stay inside a van and talk through a telephone sometimes or through the producer,” she regretted in the course of an interview just before the movie was shown at Venice.
The film magnificently captures the extreme conservatism which prevails in Saudi Arabia. It traces the life of 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who wears sneakers beneath her veil and is so vivacious and plucky that she just about breaks every rule in the community. Her dream is to own a bicycle. But this is considered sacrilegious in a society which believes that a girl could lose her ability to conceive if she were to ride one!
However, Wadjda does not take no for an answer, and her determination stems from her other resolve, which is to beat a neighbourhood boy, Abdullah (Al Gohani), in a bicycle race. Seeing her struggle, when he innocently offers her his own cycle, she quips, but then how could we have a race.
Wadjda’s mother will not give the money for the cycle, and so the little girl begins to run errands in school, like helping deliver lover letters that older girls secretly write to their boyfriends. She makes quite a pie, though not enough to buy that cycle. However, a Quran competition at school comes like blessing with huge prize money, and Wadjda prepares for it with diligence, eventually winning it.
A sub-text in the movie relates to Wadjda’s rather liberal mother and her failing efforts to stop her husband from marrying a second woman.
But Wadjda is unfazed by all this, and single-mindedly devotes her attention to getting the bicycle from the shop. She charms the shopkeeper to reserve the bike for her.
The story is narrated with simple ease, and it highlights the sad plight of Saudi women, forced to play second fiddle to men, and to hide behind the drab black veil. But then there are people like Wadjda, though just 10 years old, ready to rebel and free themselves from suffocating shackles.
Al Mansour’s jury at Venice will have seven leading figures from the world of cinema and culture.
In recent years the prize for a debut movie has gone to: Le Grand Voyage by Ismael Ferroukhi (2004), 13 - Tzameti by Gela Babluani (2005), Khadak by Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth (2006), La Zona by Rodrigo Plá (2007), Mid- August Lunch by Gianni Di Gregorio (2008), Clash by Pepe Diokno (2009), Majority by Seren Yuce (2010), Là-bas: A Criminal Education by Guido Lombardi (2011), and Mould by Ali Aydin (2012).
The Venice Film Festival runs from August 28 to September 7, and is headed by Alberto Barbera. He pilots the 11-day event on Lido (off mainland Venice) for the second year after a highly illustrious eight-year stint by Marco Mueller, who now presides over the Rome International Film Festival.