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Saudi's first female film director explores gender roles in debut at Venice Film Festival

January 23, 2014 at 12:01 am

Waad Mohammed could be a twelve-year-old girl anywhere in the world. With long, curly brown hair and a cheeky smile, the flashes of the cameras reflect off her silver dress as she made her appearance on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival this week.

But her recent role in the debut film ‘Wadjda,’ directed by Saudi Arabian Haifa al Mansour, means that Waad in fact carries much more responsibility than many other twelve-year-old girls. Not only did she star in one of the first films to come out of the Kingdom, directed by the country’s first female director, but her role is also representative of a new generation of Saudi Arabians, many of whom are questioning the status quo within the Kingdom.

The film is centred on the day-to-day life of Wadjda, a young Saudi girl. The dusty streets and Arabic lettering above the shops are an insight into a country not often caught on camera for the movies. One scene depicts Wadjda chasing a van with a bicycle strapped to its roof through the streets. Arriving at the shop she admires the green frame and streamers attached to the handlebars, but the shopkeeper rebuffs her, insisting that the bike is too expensive at 800 Riyals.

She wants the green bike so that she can compete in races against her male friends; a taboo in a country where mixing of the sexes in public is forbidden and so is driving for women. Women also need male consent to open a bank account, work or travel. At home her mother tells her that decent girls do not cycle in public. Yet this does not seem to deter Wadjda, who is determined that she will find a way to have that bike.

In terms of policy in the real world, there is an indication that Saudi Arabia is slowly shedding its lack of balance in terms of gender roles and that it is opening up opportunities for women. Females were given the right to vote in 2011 and are now eligible to be part of King Abdullah’s consultative body, the Shura Council. London this year saw Saudi Arabian female athletes compete at the Olympics for the first time.

But complete reform will take time. Even though the authorities allowed this production to be made (it was filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia), some people were not tolerant about it. At times Haifa had to direct the male cast from the safety of her production van whilst some people attempted to stop the filming when they saw the cast on the streets, and tried to confiscate the camera.

Which is why people like Wadjda and Haifa al Mansour are so important, to test the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable constantly and to confront inequality, despite the obstacles. As Haifa said, “To me, making a film is not like saying ‘ah, it’s really dark, it’s really difficult,’ I wanted to make a film to say ‘yeah, it’s difficult and everything, but we need to fight.’ That’s it.”

Follow Amelia on Twitter: @amyinthedesert

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