Cannes 2012: Saudi Arabia's First Female Director Brings 'Wadjda' to Fest

Haifaa Al Mansour P 2011

Haifaa Al Mansour's coming-of-age drama is produced by Berlin-based Razor Film, whose credits include “Waltz With Bashir” and "Paradise Now."

CANNES – Wadjda, the first-ever film shot in Saudi Arabia, hits the Cannes market as The Match Factory begins pre-sales at Cannes’ Marche du Film on the coming-of-age drama from Haiffa al Mansour, the first female Saudi filmmaker.

PHOTOS: Cannes Film Festival: Veterans Ready to Return to the Croisette

Haifaa wrote and directed Wadjda, which tells the ordinary but uplifting story of Wadjda, an 11-year-old girl growing up in the suburbs of Saudi capital city Riyadh. Wadjda’s dream is to get and ride a green bicycle, a treasure forbidden to women in the restrictive Islamist state.

“I'm so proud to have shot the first full-length feature ever filmed entirely inside the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia),” Mansour said. “I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia where there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will, reshape and redefine our nation.”

Cannes Q&A: Studiocanal CEO Olivier Courson on His Packed Market Lineup, Favorite Festival Memory

Mansour used an all-Saudi cast for her film, including Reem Abdulla, one of Saudi Arabia's best known television actresses.  But the Wadjda crew came from both Germany and Saudi Arabia and included award-winning German cinematographer Lutz Reitemeyer (White Deer Plain).  Gerhard Meixner and Roman Paul of Berlin-based Razor Film, whose credits include Oscar nominees Paradise Now and Waltz with Bashir, produced Wadjda with financing help from Rena Ronson of the UTA Independent Film Group. Ronson first kicked off financing for the project when she met with Mansour at the Abu Dhabi Circle Conference in 2009. Saudi partner Amr Alkahtani of Rotana Studios provided additional financial and logistical support on the ground during the shoot.

“We are excited that we have successfully shot the very first feature film in a country where going to the movies is forbidden,” said Meixner and Paul of Razor Film. “Experts on the region told us we would never be able to make a movie like this in such an environment. Haifaa Al Mansour deserves extraordinary respect for her courage, as does our local partner, Amr Alkahtani, who was indispensable in making the shoot possible.  Saudi Arabia remains very inaccessible to outsiders, and representations of the country in the media are often one-sided and filled with clichés. We hope that our film can open and broaden the way people look at this country, its rich culture and wonderful people.”

Wadjda is Mansour’s first feature-length drama but the director has shot three short films as well as the award-winning documentary Women Without Shadows. All of her work is focused on giving a platform to Saudi woman to tell their unheard stories.