Saudi Arabia’s first female film director Haifaa Al Mansour, whose debut feature Wadjda was enthusiastically received in Venice, has made an outspoken plea for women’s rights in her homeland.

At the same time, Mansour has stated her commitment to continuing to work in Saudi Arabia.

“I really want to work within the system in Saudi Arabia,” the director said in Venice yesterday. “I don’t want to be an outcast. Saudi Arabia is a very conservative place. I want to make films that make them (the Saudis) more relaxed, more tolerant and respect women more. I don’t want them to refuse the film completely…I don’t feel like being violent and pushing it (the film) in the face of people. I feel like talking to people and trying to engage them and having them with you on the same story. Winning them is the best way for art to play a larger role in the Middle East.”

Her film has received official backing from Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal. “He’s really a cool prince. He’s pro women and wants to push for that. I am very grateful for his support,” the director said.

Wadjda (sold internationally by Match Factory) is set to be released theatrically in Bahrain, Qatar and UAE by Rotana Studios. However, it is uncertain whether Wadjda will be shown in Saudi Arabia itself, where cinema is still illegal.

“We hope that we will push for it and they (the authorities) will show it but we have to respect the country’s rules…but for sure, it will have a TV release and DVD release inside Saudi Arabia.”

Wadja tells the story of a 10-year-old girl living in a suburb of Riyadh. Although growing up in a very conservative background, she is a free spirit who defies school and religious authorities in her pursuit of a cherished bicycle.

The director, who made the film in collaboration with German outfit Razor Film, said that Wadjda was “made for everyone. I wanted to make a story that was emotional and with universal themes about a person who wants to achieve a dream. That is a very universal message but I always put in mind that I wanted this film to be seen in Saudi Arabia. It has a lot of things that only Saudis will understand, the subtleties and the things about their culture they will see and enjoy.”