It is no secret that female directors are disproportionately represented in the film industry. When it comes to directing, men are paid significantly more and are hired far more often than their female counterparts, while also dominating the box office and award ceremonies. Two of the most prestigious prizes in cinema – the Cannes Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Director – have each been won only once by a woman (Jane Campion for The Piano , and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker  respectively). When once asked why he frequently writes roles for strong female leads, director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Much Ado About Nothing) famously retorted, “Because you’re still asking me that question,” and the insights into the world of film that this exchange offers can just as easily be applied to directorial roles.
Except for the handful of directors implicitly deemed famous enough (for example, Bigelow, or Sofia Coppola), there is still the tendency in journalism for women to be called “female directors” rather than just “directors”. The label “female director” is effectively redundant; the sex of a Jane or a Kathryn is already apparent without requiring further emphasis. It can also have the unfortunate consequence of conjuring connections to the abstract category of ‘women’s films’, films either equated with the ‘femininity’ of trite rom-coms, or alternatively, those driven by an overt feminist agenda. In both cases, of course, this is unhelpful: most rom-coms are directed by men, and feminism is by no means the exclusive property of women (as filmmakers such as Whedon have proven). For a male director’s sex to be foregrounded in a similar manner is unthinkable, and despite the difficulties that women often face finding success in the male-dominated film industry, implying that female directors ‘overcome’ their sex to achieve such success is marginalising and even condescending.
On some occasions, however, just being a female filmmaker really is a success in itself, as is the case with Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda (showing at Phoenix Picturehouse and Ultimate Picture Palace, both from July 19th). Wadjda is the first feature-length film ever to be directed by a Saudi Arabian woman, in a society where women are not supposed to work in public and still don’t have the power to vote (though this is thankfully changing in 2015). In an interview with the Guardian, director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) recently remarked that the gender imbalance in directing is “a bit like a country not being filmed – and that country not having a voice.” Her comment is particularly apt here, as Wadjda was also the first feature-length film to have ever been shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.
During the 1980s as a result of the Islamic revival, Saudi Arabian cinemas were closed, and although Saudis can still watch films on DVD or via satellite a Saudi film industry has been understandably slow to emerge. In the past seven years, however, a handful of films by Saudi filmmakers have been released, led by Keif al-Hal? , marketed as the ‘first Saudi Arabian film’ though some filming took place elsewhere, and Abdullah Al-Eyaf’s documentary Cinema 500 km . Al-Eyaf’s film, which follows a 21-year-old Saudi travelling 500km to Bahrain in order to watch a film in a cinema, indicates the extremes that Saudi film fans are willing to go to in order to have experiences that we take entirely for granted.
Beyond al-Mansour’s difficulties obtaining permission to film in the country, the filming process was an obstacle in itself. As women and men are not allowed to work together in public, especially when the woman is seen to be in charge, al-Mansour often had to direct the film via walkie-talkie, watching it on the production van’s monitor. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Wadjda tackles the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, which al-Mansour had already explored in her previous short films and documentaries. Who? and Women Without Shadows, for example, both focus on the custom of abaya, the equivalent of the South Asian burqa.
Wadjda tells the story of the title’s young protagonist (played by Waad Mohammed), who longs to buy a green bicycle so that she can race her friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman al-Gohani). Her mother (Reem Abdullah) refuses to buy it, as racing bikes are not for girls, so Wadjda sets out to make the money herself. After getting in trouble for selling homemade mixtapes and football bracelets at school, she decides to enter a Koran recital competition, the prize for which would be more than enough to pay for the green bicycle. The bicycle as symbol of freedom is evident, offering Wadjda not only a way to travel independently but also the means by which to challenge Abdullah on equal terms. Wadjda’s refusal to conform to her society’s expectations is also immediately apparent; beyond her cycling ambitions, she listens to Western music and wears Converse shoes. When Wadjda’s strict teacher notices and demands she wears black shoes like everyone else, Wadjda colours the white tips in, a small act of rebellion that slips under the radar.
Elsewhere, women’s issues are tackled even more directly. In one scene Wadjda looks at the family tree on the wall in her house, which only includes the names of men. Not wanting to be rendered invisible as a woman (a topic central to Women Without Shadows), Wadjda writes her own name on a piece of paper and pins it to the wall, only to later find it removed and screwed up. In another scene, Wadjda’s mother is shocked upon hearing that a friend is working with men in a local hospital, and with her face uncovered. Wadjda’s mother also has issues of her own: she is no longer able to give birth and her husband, who still wants a son to continue the all-male family tree, is considering marrying another woman. Wadjda’s mother is thus shown as torn between her willingness to conform to her society’s culture in many respects, and the fear of abandonment through polygamy that the same culture makes possible.
Wadjda’s teacher, Ms Hussa (Ahd Kamel), rigidly imposes the Wahabi codes of behaviour upon her students, taking out her own frustrations at her society through reinforcing them. At one point she hears Wadjda laughing with a friend and warns her that, “a woman’s voice reveals her nakedness.” Al-Mansour opens the doors to Wadjda’s all-girls school to male and non-Saudi viewers, a school in which girls are scrutinised and scolded for deviating from societal norms, and cannot touch the Qur’an if they are on their period.
Wadjda celebrates youthfulness and individuality, and it is no doubt al-Mansour’s intention to juxtapose Wadjda’s rebellious questioning of society’s norms with the acceptance of the film’s female adults. Pessimists would argue that the title character’s hopes for independence in this country are naïve, but al-Mansour’s own background counters this outlook. The eighth of twelve children, al-Mansour’s father Abdul Rahman Mansour was a poet who raised his children as part of a progressive family. Al-Mansour’s father encouraged her to study abroad, at the American University in Cairo and at film school in Sydney, and persistently believed in his children’s right to act freely despite the disapproval and isolation that it caused his family. For al-Mansour, the liberty made possible by her father enabled her to achieve her aspirations. Emblematically, al-Mansour herself had a green bicycle as a child, and Wadjda’s success therefore wonderfully mirrors the film’s (and director’s) own messages of freedom and hope.
Life is changing, slowly but surely, for Saudi Arabian women. The current king, King Abdullah, keen to be seen as a reformer, has pledged that women will constitute a fifth of the country’s Shura Council. He has given women scholarships for Western universities and, in April of this year, women were finally given legal permission to ride bicycles and motorcycles. There is still much that needs to change, however; even the reforms in cycling laws demand that women must be accompanied by a male guardian and that they must ride for entertainment purposes only. As a result of her insistence that Saudi people should be more critical of the country’s culture, al-Mansour has even received numerous death threats and accusations of being anti-religious. She nonetheless remains confident that important reforms will continue to take place in future decades, led by girls like Wadjda who don’t accept their oppressive place in society as a given.
With Wadjda, Al-Mansour has created a film that – to return to Lynne Ramsay’s earlier comment – has given Saudi Arabia and its women a voice, in a way that has quite literally never been achieved before. Wadjda does not proselytise or rely on brash confrontation to make its point, and it offers a critical yet optimistic reflection on modern Saudi culture while reassuring its audience that film does not need to shout and scream to have a positive political impact.
For up-to-date listings and to book tickets please follow these links: Phoenix Picturehouse; Ultimate Picture Palace; Odeon George St; Odeon Magdalen St. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at email@example.com.