Saudi Arabia’s first woman film maker, Haifaa Al-Mansour, said her country was becoming “more tolerant and more accepting” as she picked up an award in Cannes on Saturday for her acclaimed film “Wadjda”.
The 2012 tale of an impish young Saudi girl who plots to own a bicycle in defiance of a ban has won the hearts of critics and public alike in France, Germany and Switzerland, where it is being distributed.
Filming “Wadjda” was an odyssey in itself.
In conservative neighbourhoods, local residents would block shooting, or Mansour would have to direct from a van with a walkie-talkie, as she could not be seen in public together with male crew and actors.
The film itself will only be seen in the kingdom on DVD or on television, as cinemas there are banned.
Invited to the Cannes Film Festival to pick up a prize in the “newcomers” category of the France-Culture Liberation awards, Mansour played down the pressure from conservatives and argued that the future for women in her country was more promising.
Conservative reaction to the movie, as measured on Twitter, remained hostile, but there had been a hugely positive reaction amongst young women, especially those on scholarships abroad, she said in an interview with AFP.
But, she argued, “The country is not as it was before, all conservative, there is room now, there is room to bring in art and women’s rights and women’s issues, and people are more tolerant and more accepting. So it is changing.”
Waad Mohammed, the 10-year-old actress who plays the lead role, has had no negative repercussions from the boundary-testing film, Mansour said.
Mansour, 38, was one of 12 children who grew up in a small town in Saudi Arabia, with parents who supported her career despite pressure from relatives who said filmmaking was “not honourable”.
She studied literature at the American University in Cairo and film at the University of Sydney; her husband is American.
She said her plans included making another film in Saudi Arabia.
Asked if she felt she was being forced into a role as a defender of Saudi women’s rights, Mansour said she had not sought the part, but did not reject it, either.