Wadjda (2012) is said to be the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. It is also written and directed by the nation’s first female film-maker, Haifaa Al Mansour. It is currently making its way through Europe, opening (or having already opened) early this year in a host of countries, including France, Sweden and the Netherlands, with August premieres scheduled for the United Kingdom and Germany. It will not, however, reach Saudi cinemas, for the simple reason that there aren’t any. They were banned in the 1980s following the rise of religious conservatism. Saudis kept on watching films illegally via satellite television and legally via heavily censored VHS tapes and, eventually, on DVD. The nation also produced television soap operas and dramas. But no Saudi feature films were made until signs of a certain liberalization of attitudes among sections of the ruling class became evident in the mid-2000s.
Then, in 2006, the Rotana group, the Arab world’s largest entertainment company, majority-owned by the sixteenth richest man in the world, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, with a minority post held by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., produced the comedy-drama Keif al-Hal? (‘How’s it going?’). Filmed in Dubai, directed by a Palestinian living in Canada and with a Jordanian actress in the lead role, it is nevertheless generally claimed to be the first Saudi feature film. The story focuses on the conflict between a young woman who dreams of a professional career and her conservative brother who wants her to marry and accept the traditional life of a homemaker. In the same year the nation’s first film festival was held in Jeddah, going on to become an annual event, although a temporary backlash saw it banned in 2009.
There are clear signs that many Saudis long for the return of cinemas. According to one poll as many as 90 per cent ‘agree to the opening of movie halls in Saudi cities, as long as they screen films that are “realistic” and whose content does not contravene the values and customs of Islam.’ Furthermore, reportedly as many as 230,000 Saudi tourists visited the United Arab Emirates in the summer of 2010 alone, just to watch movies. This phenomenon of movie tourism was captured in the documentary short Cinema 500 km (2006), which follows the journey of a film enthusiast, not to the Emirates, but to Bahrain, to see a film in a movie theatre for the very first time. In 2009 the inhabitants of the nation’s capital, Riyadh, could actually experience something resembling a trip to the movies, when the Rotana-produced comedy Menahi was screened at a government-run cultural centre. However, the event was open to men and children of both sexes up to ten, only. Checkpoints on the road leading to the gated centre made sure no women would slip in.
That cinema in general, and films questioning traditional gender roles in particular, remains controversial was demonstrated by Haifaa Al Mansour’s 2005 documentary Women without Shadows. This film, which deals with women’s isolation and loss of identity as a result of having to cover their faces in public, led to hate mail and death threats for Haifaa, whilst a well-known Saudi religious scholar who expressed the opinion, in the film, that Islam does not demand that women cover their faces as long as they’re modestly dressed, was put under such pressure that he later publicly retracted this statement.
The story of Wadjda (also supported, though not produced, by Rotana) centres on a 10-year-old girl, Wadjda, who is determined to fight for her individual freedom, her right to show her face in public, her friendship with the boy next door and, most of all, to fulfil her dream of buying and riding a bike, something unheard of for a contemporary Saudi girl. In a parallel plot her father plans to marry a second wife because Wadjda’s mother cannot ‘give him’ a son. The film very intelligently demonstrates how oppression is transferred down the social hierarchy, with women themselves, like the strict headmaster of Wadjda’s school, often taking an active role in upholding traditional discipline. Given the history of hostility to cinema and the fact that the Saudi Arabian dictatorship’s record on women’s rights would make Iran look like a feminist paradise, I must admit that I was expecting a film treading a rather careful and conciliatory path. But Haifaa’s film ends on a defiant note, as Wadjda’s mother, now abandoned by her husband, stands on the rooftop terrace smoking a cigarette, face and hair uncovered, explaining to Wadjda that they are now alone in the world.
That a film such as Wadjda can be produced in Saudi Arabia, and with the support of a powerful block of the ruling class, indicates that official attitudes to both cinema and gender roles are changing. At least partly these changes reflect both the realization of the profit-making possibilities of a liberalized media landscape and the long-term economic need to increase the share of Saudis, including women, in the nation’s labour force, of which guest workers now make up about 50 per cent. But there is, obviously, still a very long way to go. Saudi Arabia remains a brutal dictatorship oppressing women, assisting in keeping the populations of neighbouring countries down, as demonstrated by the troop deployment against the democracy movement in Bahrain, and hyper-exploiting a huge class of guest workers (Wadjda, in fact, projects the worst misogynistic behaviour onto a Pakistani driver in a way that hints at nationalist prejudice). But for all that, Wadjda remains a significant event in global film history, one not to be missed.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.
 According to Bloomberg Billionaires’ ranking of the world’s richest people as of 23 March 2013.