I started writing my film Wadjda about five years ago, which started out as a very basic story about a little girl that wanted a green bicycle. None of the key plot-points were developed at that time, but I felt like there was something universal and simple about a young girl wanting a bicycle. There is also a cultural taboo common throughout the Arab world that bicycles threaten a woman's honour, so I felt like it was an interesting symbol of the challenges facing women in my country.
I really wanted to put a human face on some of these larger issues that we talk about theoretically, and you don't have to explain why a little girl would see riding a bike as something that might be fun. I also felt like most Western audiences have their own ideas and concepts about women in Saudi but don't know much about the day-to-day life of women in the Kingdom. Of course it is hard to be a woman in Saudi Arabia but I wanted to make a film that shows the world how strong the women in my country are.
So as the script developed I put the most work into the characters, and transforming them from passive, helpless victims to more proactive masters of their own destiny. And it was difficult to get the story to a point where it can be considered uplifting. I didn't want to give audiences the false impression that it would be an easy or acceptable thing for a girl to ride a bike around Riyadh, so it was hard not to imagine a bleaker end to her journey.
When I felt like the story was finally ready, we submitted all of the paperwork and worked with the government to get all of the proper approvals to film. Although we don't have cinemas, we do have a system for TV production and they treated the project in the same way. The police would show up pretty regularly on the set, see that we had the proper permits, and let us go about our business. Even though we saw some hostility while filming in public, we saw a lot more curiosity, of people who were just excited to see something new going on in their neighbourhood.
The film has a neo-realist, almost documentary style because I wanted to bring an authentic slice of Saudi life to the audience. For a lot of the outdoor scenes we knew we were going to face a lot of challenges, from conservative bystanders to sandstorms to nervous partners, so we planned on the spot to work with what we had. Most of the early backers of the film tried to convince me to shoot it somewhere more open to film, but it was really important to me to shoot it in the heart of Riyadh- and to make it the first film ever shot in the Kingdom.
I was really nervous to take the film to the Venice Film Festival for its premiere, and wondered if outside audiences would be able to relate to a story in such a foreign environment. The ten minute standing ovation the film received there was such an amazing moment! I've been traveling with the film ever since, and I love watching the different reactions to the film around the world. I was really happy that so many Saudis came out to see the film at the Dubai International Film Festival, and that they continue to come out and support it in every festival I've been to. I get so many positive reactions from them. At a recent festival in Europe a Saudi student came up to me and said, "Now I know how Americans feel when they watch an American film at the theater."
I think a lot of people expected the film to be more confrontational, and maybe more radical in its delivery. But my film is less a criticism of the system as it is a criticism of people who think they are powerless to change their place within it. I wanted to show that the characters have choices, and that the easiest choice is always to conform, and that the choice to break away can be difficult but also incredibly rewarding. I also wanted to make a film Saudis could be proud of, and one that would make film as a medium seem less threatening.
So especially now, as we see the harsh and disappointing realities of radical change in other parts of the region, I think we should continue to focus on the positive and how we can influence whatever change we think that next step should be. Change is a sensitive process in any country, and will always be met with opposition. Saudi is a different place than it was 10 years ago, and many of the debates we faced growing up - like satellite TV or the internet - have become irrelevant. The new generation has access to information and different cultures and ideas that we couldn't even imagine growing up. There are so many amazing stories to tell from Saudi, especially now, as we stand at a crossroads between the traditions of our past and the changes that modernization will bring, and I hope I can continue to tell them in until the issue of opening cinemas in the Kingdom is irrelevant too.
Wadjda is out in cinemas on 19 July - WATCH the trailer below...