Last night, director Haifaa al-Mansour shared the Tribeca Film Festival stage with activist Gloria Steinem and author Zainab Salbi, where the three discussed al-Mansour's film, Wadjda, the first movie shot in Saudi Arabia by a female Saudi director. The story follows the titular character, a spunky young girl trying to scrape together enough cash to buy a bicycle to race the boy across the street, even though both are frowned upon in Saudi culture.
"I didn't want to make a sad film as much as one that shows the tension between modernity and tradition. Saudi Arabia is a rich and very modern place – it has big buildings, mobile phones and flat screens – but the people are still very traditional," al-Mansour said at a discussion following the film's screening.
Even though the Saudi ministry of culture approved the production, al-Mansour still had to follow the country's Sharia laws while shooting outdoor scenes. The director, dressed in a full hijab, concealed herself inside a van with a monitor and walkie-talkie, where she radioed directions to actors and producers.
"That was very difficult, because you want to be there for the actors and you want to be there on set, but it made me work harder," al-Mansour said. "But it also showed me how the country is changing."
Steinem offered a larger political context, arguing that the restrictions on Islamic women in the Middle East are not dissimilar from certain restrictions placed on women in the United States.
"Part of the commonality for me is coming from the profound recognition that it's all about controlling reproduction. And that means controlling women's bodies. And it's so minute. We are all human beings, and we have more in common than what separates us. But the gender police that we have in every patriarchal culture are so detailed there."
Wadjda will be released this summer by Sony Pictures Classics.