"Wadjda," a film about a resourceful young tomboy, has been selected as Saudi Arabia's official submission for the Oscars' foreign language category, the first time the country has submitted a film for Academy Awards consideration.
That the film, from director Haifaa Mansour, was made at all, let alone screened and submitted for the Academy Awards, is a startling achievement.
In a country where the actions of women are severely restricted, Mansour managed to secretly write and shoot her movie. To qualify for the foreign language Oscar, a film must receive a theatrical release in its country of origin, but Saudi Arabia has no commercial cinemas. The seven-person Saudi nominating committee had to fly to the Dubai International Film Festival to first see the picture, and then arrangements were made for it to be exhibited in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
"Wadjda" screened in two foreign embassies and a cultural center; in a city with a population of more than 6 million, it is estimated that little more than 1,000 people saw the film. Opening this weekend in Los Angeles, "Wadjda" is being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, which has been an Oscar powerhouse in the foreign language category, having won the award in six of the last seven years.
"I am so thrilled to hear the news," Mansour said. "It means that Saudi Arabia is recognizing film as an art form. It's a very hopeful sign."
In the film, a 10-year-old-girl, played by Waad Mohammed, enrolls in a Koran recitation competition to win money to buy a bicycle she is forbidden by law to ride. (Since the movie was made, that restriction has been loosened.) In the same spirit of gentle rebellion as the film's story, "Wadjda" is said to be not only the first feature film made within the ultraconservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia but it was also made by a woman.
"A lot of people don't want films [in Saudi Arabia] because they think it's corrupt — especially the conservatives," Mansour said. She added that she was optimistic that the country submitting "Wadjda" for Oscar consideration would lead to not only more screenings at cultural centers in Saudi Arabia but also would encourage area filmmakers and investors.
"I hope producers in the West will now see the possibilities of doing a co-production," the filmmaker said.
The production itself faced unusual challenges, such as losing two days to sandstorms. The owner of a mall changed his mind at the last minute about allowing filming there, sending the film's half-Saudi, half-German crew into a scramble. Some days, locals would chase the crew off, and other days, welcome them with platters of food. At times, Mansour had to direct the film while hiding inside a van, so as not to be seen mingling with men in public.
"We are very proud of the film as an authentic representation of our country and culture and are very pleased to see the themes and story of the film resonate with audiences well beyond our borders," Sultan Al Bazie, head of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts and chairman of the nominating committee, said in a statement Friday.
The surface simplicity of the film's story — a girl wants a bike — belies the complexities of life in Saudi Arabia.
"I didn't want to make a movie about women being raped or stoned," Mansour, 39, said in an interview in Beverly Hills in June. "For me it is the everyday life, how it's hard. For me, it was hard sometimes to go to work, because I cannot find transportation. Things like that build up and break a woman."
Raised in a small town, the eighth of 12 children, Mansour earned a degree at the American University in Cairo before returning to Saudi Arabia. In 2005, at a U.S. Embassy screening of her documentary, "Women Without Shadows," Mansour met her future husband, American diplomat Bradley Neimann. They now have two children, ages 2 and 5, and live in Bahrain, where Neimann works for the State Department.
When her husband was posted in Australia, Mansour pursued a master's in film studies at the University of Sydney, and wrote the script that became "Wadjda."
"I want to work within the system so that I can engage people rather than fight with them. But it's harder to work within the boundaries," Mansour said when the film had its North American premiere as part of the 2012 Telluride Film Festival. "And as a woman, it was very hard for me to direct this film."
There is no official film school in Saudi Arabia, though Al Bazie said there are growing numbers of classes and seminars being taught. And although "Wadjda" may be the first feature film shot there, many Saudi youths are making short movies and posting them to YouTube.
The Academy Awards can hold more meaning than just a single statue given in Hollywood, as even the simple qualification of "Wadjda" can feel like an achievement, signifying a country's place within the larger global community.
"We don't want to just be represented," Bazie said Friday in a phone call from Saudi Arabia. "We want to compete."
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