(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a new movie out about Saudi Arabia, not a news documentary, not a political film. "Wadjda" is a feature film, the very first film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, a country with no movie theaters, by the way. It tells the story of a defiant 10-year-old girl pushing back against the gender barriers that define and constrict her life. Wadjda is desperate for independence in the form of a green bicycle she wants to buy for herself. But girls in Saudi Arabia don't ride bicycles, so she has to be creative.
Wadjda enters a school contest to recite the Quran where the best performance wins a cash prize.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WADJDA")
WAAD MOHAMMED: (as Wadjda) (Reciting in foreign language)
MARTIN: "Wadjda" was directed by someone set on breaking gender barriers herself. Haifaa Al-Monsour is considered to be Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker. We began our conversation with that green bicycle her main character has her heart set on.
HAIFAA AL-MONSOUR: I think she's a kid and she's, like, just discovering the society around her. She's discovering what she can do and what she cannot do. And I think she wants to race a boy. She wants to - you know how kids are, competitive. She wants to win.
She wants to assert herself and be heard. But she's not trying to be aggressive as much as assertive. She's trying to find herself, to enjoy life, and for me that was a very important theme in the film. It is not about excluding anybody else or challenging anybody else. It is about finding happiness, pursuing a dream and stuff like that.
MARTIN: Even though there are all these restrictions on women that are illustrated in the film - obviously they have to cover up in public, cannot really be seen in public without a male family escort - it is often women in the film who are imposing these rules on each other. Did you think about that in terms of what it is like to grow up as a woman in Saudi Arabia and where the pressure is coming from?
AL-MONSOUR: Of course I thought about that, and I wanted to make a film that mirrors reality as much as possible. I couldn't make a film where women are all, like, innocent and striving to be free and all that - it's not real. I think a lot of women are the gatekeepers; a lot of women reinforce the values. And I wanted to bring examples of men who are really charming, like Abdullah, the little boy. For me, it was not making women all the victims and men are the oppressors.
AL-MONSOUR: It's more bringing light...
MARTIN: It's complicated, yeah.
MARTIN: Because he is, he's very charming.
MARTIN: And he says to Wadjda - I mean, he's just a little boy - but he says: I want to marry you. And he thinks that's a great compliment.
MARTIN: You couldn't be open about filming this story. I mean, you filmed in Saudi Arabia.
AL-MONSOUR: Yes, we did.
MARTIN: What was that like logistically?
AL-MONSOUR: Mm-hmm. So there is like kind of a procedure to get permission. And we got approved and...
MARTIN: It wasn't a problem that you are a woman.
AL-MONSOUR: No, it wasn't a problem at all. But it was a problem when we were actually shooting there, because Saudi is segregated and women are not supposed to be outside. So I had to be, whenever we would shoot our outdoor scenes, I would be in a van and I will sit with a walkie-talkie and a monitor. Like, yeah, you have to look up there; you have to look down there.
AL-MONSOUR: Make the frame wider and stuff like that. But it was tough. It was very frustrating to be on a confined space. But it is rewarding to be part of what's happening in Saudi, and just bringing film and art there.
MARTIN: What if you had decided to just be public about it, to cover...
AL-MONSOUR: I was covered, even in the van.
MARTIN: Even in the van, yeah.
AL-MONSOUR: No, there's no way not to be covered in Saudi.
MARTIN: But to be outside the van and to just say, you know, this is part of the statement that I'm making is to do this publicly.
AL-MONSOUR: No, it wasn't part of the statement I was trying to make. I wasn't trying to clash with people. I was trying to make a film. And I know people, if they see me, they will get offended or, like, people will come and question and will try to stop us, and stuff like this. I don't want to provoke people. I'm making a film in Saudi Arabia - I'm a woman - about a young girl who want to have a bicycle. That's enough.
AL-MONSOUR: I don't have to push it. I want...
MARTIN: Why didn't you make the film somewhere else? You could have done it in Qatar; in Jordan, I imagine; in other cultures or societies where it would have been a little easier.
AL-MONSOUR: Yeah, I think it is very important to open up Saudi and have new imagery coming from the kingdom. Nobody knows how it is like to be in Saudi. And one day, we did some cultural screening in Saudi and we invited a lot of Saudis and young kids. And one of them came to me and he was really emotional, and told me: I understand, I feel how Americans feel now when they see an American movie. And it was amazing. It made me almost like, ah, I'm going to cry.
MARTIN: It is pretty amazing. I mean, even just one of those opening scenes, Wadjda is in her bedroom and she's just being herself. She's got her headphones on. She's making bracelets and she's playing with her cassette tapes. It did occur to me, I have never seen a Saudi film. I have no idea what life is like, what those private moments are like for kids in that culture.
AL-MONSOUR: Yeah. And I wanted also to make a film that is happy. A lot of people who make films from the Middle East about almost like a horror movie when you go. And it makes me very uncomfortable watching a film like that. And I feel helpless. I feel like a victim. I wanted to make a film that when I see it, I feel powerful. And I think it's time now in the Middle East to bring in films of that type.
MARTIN: I do have to ask you about this young woman who plays Wadjda. Waad Mohammed is this young woman, only 11, who plays Wadjda. How did you find her?
AL-MONSOUR: I found her one week before principal shooting. And you know, there's no scientific method for casting. We have to rely a lot on, like, word of mouth and who knew who and all that. And it was hard. And every time we find a girl who's a little bit like maybe she has the spirit and her parents will call us and says, like, no, she has school. And they are very reluctant to be in a film like this.
But she came in really carefree with jeans and everything. And I wanted her to sing because there's the singing and recitation. And she sang beautifully for Justin Bieber...
AL-MONSOUR: ...with perfect English.
MARTIN: She sang Justin Bieber in her audition?
AL-MONSOUR: Yeah, and then I was just like, I wanted to introduce her. So like, here are the producers and she looked at me. She doesn't speak any English, only Bieber. She speaks Bieber.
AL-MONSOUR: And someone, like....
MARTIN: It's a universal language.
AL-MONSOUR: I know, like between kids.
AL-MONSOUR: And someone gave her an iPad when we were filming. They gifted her. And she says, like: I don't like Bieber. I don't like Justin Bieber. And the first thing that she that she did, she went and, like, had like a Justin Bieber screensaver. The first thing she ever did was, like, yeah, I don't like him.
MARTIN: Yeah, right.
MARTIN: What was it like to see this young woman inhabit this character and this story that you were so invested in?
AL-MONSOUR: Ah, it was really nice. Really nice to see the script come to life and I enjoyed working with the kids, with Abdullah as well. And he speaks English. She doesn't, he translates for her. And she teaches him how to be street savvy.
And for me, they were excited because they are part of something that doesn't happen anywhere in Saudi. And I felt they were really appreciative of the moment.
MARTIN: Haifaa Al-Monsour, she directed the new film, "Wadjda."
Thank you so much for being with us and talking with us.
AL-MONSOUR: No, thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.