Influences: The Movies That Inspired 'Wadjda' Director Haiffa Al-Mansour to Make History

Christopher Patey

The pioneer helmer talks about how Italian and Iranian cinema inspired her to make Saudi Arabia's first feature film.

Wadjda is not only the first film Saudi Arabia has ever nominated for the best foreign language Oscar, it's also the first feature-length film to be shot in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  For writer-director Haifaa al-Mansour this meant there was the added challenge of not having a filmmaking tradition to pull from or infrastructure she could lean on.  

“I come from a place where there is no reference, no heritage in cinema and I didn’t want do this alone when I made a film,” al-Mansour explains to The Hollywood Reporter.  “So I have spent a great deal of time watching movies from other countries.”

In wanting to tell a story about what life was like for women in Saudi Arabia, al-Mansour turned to countries with "similar realities.”

“I wanted to learn how they dealt with their culture, specifically with censorship and conservative forces in the culture, and how they tested theses boundaries to make intelligent films," she says. She found Iranian films to be a particularly useful model. Al-Mansour points to Jafar Panahi’s Offside as an Iranian film that directly inspired Wadjda.  There are parallels in the two films’ narratives – Offside tells the story of Iranian girls who disguise themselves in an effort to sneak into a World Cup qualifying match, while Wadjda’s plot is driven by an 11-year-old Saudi girl’s desire to ride a bike like the boys of her age.  

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Al-Mansour explains the lesson she learned from Offside: “With the best Iranian films, it's not about showing harshness and making people you disagree with angry, it's about just showing them with a sense of humanity of what reality is like for some people. ... I don't want to show kids being beaten or raped.  Reform is hard and we don't need to go there with extremes.  I don't want to make things worse.”

There are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia -- they were closed in the 1980s under pressure from conservative clerics.  Al-Mansour, though, grew up in a household where they watched commercial movies rented from the local video store:  “I was one of 12 kids, so when my father wanted to have some peace and quiet, he'd give us a movie to watch.”

These films taught al-Mansour an early lesson of how important it was for the viewer to connect with characters:  “I respect commercial movies because they touch people, which I later learned is sometimes difficult to do.  I knew early on that when I went to make films that I wanted to move people through my characters, to reach and touch an audience, because that is how I fell in love with film.”

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So deep was Al-Mansour's attachment to film that she’d often hang around outside the video store waiting for male acquaintances to retrieve her a movie from inside, where females weren’t permitted.  When she got older and started to take the idea of making her own feature films seriously, she quickly realized that commercial cinema was not a viable model for her, so she went on the Internet to find and study art house cinema.

She instantly gravitated to Italian movies made immediately after World War II, also known as Italian neorealism.  Al-Mansour was inspired by their somewhat documentary style, mixed with the poetry of every day life: “The films are so subtle and effortless," she says. "They were rich because life is rich. I thought this was very important for Saudi film because I wanted to document the interesting reality I was living in and show it to people.”

After the war, the infrastructure of Italian cinema had been utterly destroyed and the films were shot largely on the streets.  It was while watching these films that al-Mansour realized, “I wanted to film outside, I wanted to film in the streets.  I wanted the audience to see how Wadjda’s mobility and life was restricted, which often happens outside of the home.”  This might seem like a rather ordinary instinct for a filmmaker, until one realizes that al-Mansour’s outdoor activity, like Wadjda’s, is also restricted -- so much so that she had to direct many of Wadjda’s exteriors from inside a van. 

More than anything, it was the content of Italian neorealists’ films that inspired Saudi Arabia’s first feature filmmaker.   Italy was just starting to emerge from the rubble of not only the war, but also the Nazi occupation and the fascist rule of Mussolini.  The films, although often sad, give a sense of a society starting to open up and change, which al-Mansour connected to:  “The films were always about people and kids, but also rebirth.  Rebirth of a nation that survived the war and looking toward what comes next.”  For al-Mansour, watching how the great Italian filmmakers of the 1940s captured their society emerging from a period of great restriction was a revelation of what was possible for cinema in her country.

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“Saudi Arabia is also starting to open up and I thought maybe there was a crack I could capitalize on and make a film.  Social change is happening.  Emotions are changing.  It looks calm, but it’s boiling underneath because this younger generation has access to the world and they are asking questions about our traditions.  It creates all this tension, so I realized in watching post-war Italian films, as well as Iranian films, that I could film and capture this social change just by showing everyday life in my country.”

With a mother-daughter film centered around a bike, it’s easy to draw the connection between Wadjda and The Bicycle Thief,  the Italian neorealism masterpiece about a boy and his father.  Al-Mansour fully embraces this:  “The bicycle has this heritage in cinema and I wanted to lean on that because I felt it was important to continue something, to be part of something."

"I am isolated enough and being able to reference other films is important," she adds.

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