Haifaa Al Mansour didn’t set out to be Saudi Arabia’s first female director, but that breakthrough has brought her debut, “Wadjda,” much-deserved attention and awards at festivals ranging from Venice to Dubai — and a Sony Classics release later this year. One of 12 children raised in a conservative country where cinemas were illegal and film was considered a corrupting influence, Al Mansour grew up watching videos her father brought home — an eclectic mix of Disney cartoons and Jackie Chan fight pics, Egyptian mellers and Bollywood musicals.

“They were nothing intellectual or deep, but still, those films took me on journeys,” she says. “It’s difficult sometimes in Saudi because you are so invisible as a woman. People don’t see you, they don’t hear you. I wanted to do something that would give me a voice.”

Al Mansour started making short films as a hobby, which led her to a competition in Abu Dhabi, where she connected with agent Rena Ronson (incidentally, her first day on the job at UTA). Encouraged by such support, Al Mansour started planning her first feature, a five-year undertaking she took to several Middle Eastern workshops, including a Sundance-sponsored writers lab in Jordan. The experience was invaluable to the novice helmer, who reconsidered her original’s bleak tone and downer ending. “We have so many stories about victims,” she says. “I thought it was time to bring joy to stories and positive characters who actively want to change their destiny.”

Inspired by a niece whose prospects narrowed when her parents became conservative, Al Mansour invented young Wadjda, an ebulliently unsubmissive teen who wants nothing more than to buy her own bicycle, despite local taboos that forbid girls from such simple pleasures. “It’s also based on a lot of girls I went to school with who had potential, but they had to give up a lot of things because they were under social pressure to act in a certain way,” she says.

Finding actresses was especially difficult in a culture where many consider it wrong for women to appear on camera, forcing the team to rely on personal recommendations since a traditional casting call was out of the question. “We were panicking,” Al Mansour says, “and then (Waad Mohammad) came in one week before principal shooting, wearing Chuck Taylors and jeans. She had headphones and was listening to Justin Bieber, and that was exactly what we were looking for.”

Homebase: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia
Inspired by: “I watched a lot of Iranian films because they deal with similar issues,” says Al Mansour, singling out Jafar Panahi’s “Offside.” “It’s a conservative culture; they have censorship, but they still want to bring meaningful stories about their culture and society.”
Reps: Agents: Rena Ronson, Keya Khayatian, Larry Salz (UTA); Lawyer: Craig Emmanuel