“Reel” Change: How Women are Changing Saudi Society Through Film

Women in Saudi Arabia are spearheading efforts to produce films that accurately portray daily life in the Kingdom, despite the conservative nation’s strict laws governing people’s behavior—especially women’s.
Photo credits: Haifaa Al Mansour

In recent years, Saudi Arabian women have gained access to important rights, such as the right to vote in 2015 and the right to drive in 2018. The film industry is yet another arena where Saudi women want to be heard, seen, and represented.

Saudi Arabia’s steps into the cinematic world continue to increase thanks to the efforts of Saudi directors like Haifa Al-Mansour, who is considered the country’s first female director.

Mansour’s latest project, “The Perfect Candidate,” tells the story of a young female doctor who decides to run in the municipal elections in her male-dominated society after being turned away from the airport because she does not have travel permission from her male guardian. Throughout the doctor’s election campaign, according to the film’s synopsis, she must deal with strict social norms, gender segregation, and the influence of an eccentric family.

Although this is not Al-Mansour’s first film produced in the country, it is the first time one of her projects will be supported by the Saudi Film Council (SFC), the kingdom’s national film organization, created earlier this year. The General Cultural Authority of the kingdom created the SFC with the goal of further developing the country’s film industry and supporting Saudi filmmakers. Although movie theaters were banned in the country for 35 years (the ban was lifted in April 2018), the demand for films has always existed.

Al-Mansour released her first feature film, “Wadjda,” in 2012, and received numerous awards. The film tells the hopeful, yet realistic, coming-of-age story of Wadjda, a 10-year-old Saudi girl living in Riyadh who dreams of owning a green bicycle. In the movie, Wadjda enters a Qu’ran recitation competition in an attempt to win the money to purchase a bike. Al-Mansour’s first feature film also tells the story of Wadjda’s mother, who is fighting to balance work, while raising a child without any help from her husband, who does not live at home and is thinking of marrying a second wife.

Al-Mansour’s first film reflects the reality of many Saudi women and girls, while also providing some lighthearted moments. It allows non-Saudi viewers to learn about gender roles and stereotypes in Saudi society and the role that the strict adherence to these norms plays in the development of children. The audience sees heartbreak represented in the complicated marriage of Wadjda’s parents, but they are given hope by the innocent affection between Wadjda and her young neighbor, Abdullah. For many, the film represents an unprecedented opportunity for the Saudi film industry to flourish, while simultaneously pressing for a more equal society for women in the country.

However, it was not easy for Al-Mansour to produce this groundbreaking film. Even though she was able to gather funds from sources inside and outside of the kingdom, the lack of an established film industry in Saudi Arabia made it difficult for Al-Mansour to carry out her project.

The prohibition on men and women mixing provided another formidable challenge that Al-Mansour had to overcome in the filming process. In order to direct her team, she had to communicate with them concealed in the back of a van using walkie-talkies.

Despite the difficulties, Al-Mansour was able to successfully release the first full feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first to be submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards—even though it did not receive a nomination.

“Wadjda” offered new opportunities for Al-Mansour, as well as its actors. The role of Wadjda was played by Waad Mohammed, a young Saudi girl who had never acted before. Ahd Kamel played the role of the villainous headmistress who does not support Wadjda’s dream of owning a bicycle.

Following that success, Kamel has become the first Saudi actor to star in a Netflix series. She is now also a filmmaker, having produced two short films. Currently, Kamel is preparing for an upcoming film in the U.S., as well as writing the script for her first feature film. She is a part of the growing number of women who are taking part in the Saudi film industry.

“Wadjda,” a representation of many firsts in the kingdom, and Al-Mansour’s commitment to cinematic excellence paved the road for other successful film projects, such as director Ali Kalthami’s short film “Wasati.” The 2016 short film tells the story of a group of extremists who attacked actors during a play in the mid-1990s, underlining the complicated relationship that exists between Saudi society and the arts. After the release of “Wasati” in Los Angeles, Kalthami was able to screen his film at Al Yamamah University in Riyadh for one day. In spite of Saudi Arabia’s lack of an established film industry, Al-Mansouri and Kalthami used the tools at their disposal to create art that was representative of the society in which they live. Both directors have joined a new movement which is seeking to promote change in Saudi society through art and storytelling.

Saudi Arabia’s second feature film, “Barakah Meets Barakah,” premiered in 2016 at the Berlin Film Festival and was the first Saudi film to be streamed on Netflix. The film is a love story that focuses on a Saudi couple as they navigate the difficulties of dating in strict Saudi society. Its protagonist, Fatima Al-Banawi, is an artist and actor. She recently spoke to France 24 about her involvement in the Saudi creative scene and her decision to stay in Jeddah, rather than living abroad and working in a less censored industry.

She believes that if she “wants to do work about Saudis, then it’s going to be with Saudis.” Al-Banawi, along with women like Al-Mansour and Kamel, is playing an important role in the growing Saudi film industry that will continue to explore gender roles and the importance of art in Saudi society, in the hopes that more and more Saudis will be able to enjoy these films in public.

After more than three decades of Saudis watching movies at home or in the cinemas of neighboring countries, the kingdom opened its first movie theater on April 2018 in Riyadh, which screened Black Panther as its first film.

With this historic moment, the country has begun to introduce spaces and initiatives that encourage Saudi filmmakers to hone their craft and develop their skills as filmmakers.

Al-Mansour aspires to continue tackling topics that are relevant to modern Saudi society and represent the challenges that many women face throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, which she hopes to do with even greater freedom in the future. Mansour serves as an inspiration for Saudi women attending Effat University, where they are studying in the first, and only, filmmaking degree program in Saudi Arabia. Although Al-Mansour had to conceal herself while directing her first film, students at Effat are now able to film outside of university grounds.

Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Culture is also holding seven film programs inside Saudi Arabia and abroad that will serve about 130 Saudi men and women. These programs will focus on directing, screenwriting, and sound production.

It is only a matter of time before directors such as Al-Mansour will be able to create films that reflect Saudi society and share them with Saudi audiences in theaters open to both men and women. With Saudi Arabia’s focus on producing new, talented filmmakers and screenwriters, the industry has the potential to grow and produce more successful films.