NEW YORK (AP) — Haifaa Al Mansour had to go to great lengths to make the groundbreaking Saudi film “Wadjda” — and not only because it is the first feature made entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first directed by a Saudi woman.
Because of regulations about the public mingling of women and men, she had to direct outdoor scenes via a walkie-talkie, watching on a monitor from a parked van.
“It made me work harder,” she said at a discussion following the film’s North American premiere Sunday evening at the Tribeca Film Festival, saying that she instead rehearsed longer with the actors.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Women for Women International founder Zainab Salbi joined Al Mansour, after the film for a discussion that spoke both to the global struggle of women’s rights, and the regional differences.
“I hope we’re beginning to realize just as we, as human beings, are linked not ranked, in a deep sense, revolutions are linked not ranked,” said Steinem.
“Wadjda,” which earlier premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will be released this fall by Sony Pictures Classics, is about an independent-minded 10-year-old girl (Waad Mohammed) who chafes at the deeply conservative Muslim society she and her mother (Reem Abdullah) struggle through. Though it depicts the severe separation of men and women in Saudi Arabia, it’s a subtle, largely optimistic film in which the girl, Wadjda, strives to simply own a bicycle.
Al Mansour, who made the movie with the permission of the Saudi government, also struck a positive tone Sunday.
“It’s an exciting time in the country now,” said Al Mansour. “They’re empowering women and they are giving more chances. Girls can ride bicycles now.”
Earlier this month, the Saudi religious police began allowing women to ride bikes, although only in restricted recreational areas. In 2011, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run for office beginning in 2015. Nevertheless, women in Saudi Arabia cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian.
With change coming slowly, it remained unclear just how much Saudi Arabia — and “Wadjda” — had in common with neighboring, less patient revolutions in the Middle East. In Egypt, women have played pivotal roles in the Arab Spring, but also been violently marginalized by fundamentalist groups.
“Do you go through a revolution or evolution is the question right now,” said Salbi, an Iraqi humanitarian who’s working on a documentary about women and the Arab Spring. “Wadjda” isn’t brazen, she said, but “is beautifully pushing the envelope.”
“Wadjda” won’t get a theatrical release in Saudi Arabia — there aren’t any movie theaters there — but is expected to air on Saudi television and be released on DVD.
“It’s different in degree but not in kind from the opposition we see in this country in state legislatures to reproductive freedom as a basic human right,” said Steinem. “Part of the commonality for me comes out of the profound recognition that it’s all about controlling reproduction, and that means controlling women’s bodies.”
Al Mansour summarized her film not in political terms, but instead called it a movie “about hope, embracing change and moving ahead.”
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle