ANGELINA PRAT, LAUREN SAYLOR, AND ELODIE INTROIA WRITE – In a patriarchal society that has fought to keep women unheard, Haifaa al-Mansour has found her voice.  The film Wadjda was not only the first Saudi film to be written and directed by a woman, but also was the first to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia.

Wadjda director Haifaa al Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first feature film-maker

The timing for this movie could not be more relevant. In the past 12 months women gained the right to vote in the upcoming 2015 municipal elections, there was the first successful election of women into the Shura (the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia — a body that proposes laws to the King), and we witnessed the first female Olympic competitors from Saudi Arabia.

Despite all the ‘bad-rap’ Saudi Arabia gets for its lack of freedom, it was important for Mansour to convey a message that instilled happiness and power into its viewers, while not attacking the government and Saudi social norms. The film stars a 10-year-old girl who tries to win the cash prize in a Quran reciting competition, so she can buy a green bicycle. Haifaa al-Mansour based the character off of her niece, a very feisty and motivated young girl, whose traditional Saudi father wanted her to conform to the traditional Islamic culture.

Some of the biggest obstacles Mansour faced were being confined to the space of a van for the duration of the filming, and avoiding social conflict.  Although it was not against the law for a woman to film publicly, Mansour said the conservative Saudi citizens would have still tried to stop it if they saw her.

Despite all, it was crucial for her to stay respectful to the Saudi culture, by not making the film a radical feminist statement.  She emphasizes in her interviews that she was conscientious of the beliefs of Saudi people, and wanted to tell a joyful story about a young girl seeking happiness. Instead of painting a picture of Saudi Arabia as a place of political instability, she wanted to remind people that Saudi women have their own individual identity just like anyone else.

This film is a good indication that norms are changing in Saudi Arabia. Part of the film’s small budget was fronted by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and his wife Ameerah. This power-couple is well known around the world for their support for women’s rights. Two-thirds of the Prince’s staff are women, including the first Saudi female pilot, and Princess Ameerah is the mastermind behind women gaining the right to drive. They are part of the growing trend of progressive Saudis.

Wadjda is a film that encourages every woman to chase after her dreams, just as Mansour did. Although the film already won two awards, it sadly did not make the deadline for this year’s Oscars.

To watch the trailer please click here.