Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker.

Pioneer: Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour in Sydney for the Film Festival screening of her movie Wadjda. Photo: Kate Geraghty

When Haifaa Al Mansour made her first film, she often had to sit inside a van and speak to her actors via walkie-talkie lest she be visible on the streets of Saudi Arabia.

In a segregated country that does not allow cinemas, conservative relatives were so concerned about her directing films that they wrote letters to her father suggesting she was being corrupted.

Yet despite these barriers, Al Mansour has become the country's first female filmmaker.

Her low-budget drama Wadjda is winning international recognition, including selection in competition at the Sydney Film Festival.

The film centres on a spirited 10-year-old girl who wants to do something that conservative Muslim society considers dangerous for her virtue - owning a bicycle. To get the money to buy one, she enters a Koran recitation competition at school.

The Sydney selection has meant a type of homecoming for the 38-year-old. She spent a year studying for a masters degree in film at the University of Sydney before having the confidence to tackle her first feature. ''I had a great time,'' she says. ''I had my first son. I went to school when I was pregnant and my professors were very supportive.''

As one of 12 children growing up in a liberal family in a small town, Al Mansour's film education started with movies from around the world on video.

''The house was very crazy so my father would go to the video store and he'd put on movies just to keep us quiet,'' she says. ''That's how I first fell in love with film.''

After making corporate videos for an oil company, Al Mansour decided to become a filmmaker when her first short was accepted in a competition in Abu Dhabi.

''To be a woman in Saudi is very hard,'' she says. ''You don't feel like your voice matters.

''I wanted to do something just for me as therapy, just to find my voice. So I decided to make a short.''

While shooting Wadjda, Al Mansour was happy to film from inside the van in conservative areas. ''I didn't want to clash with people,'' she says. ''It was very important to respect the culture and work within the rules.''

Having won acceptance in Saudi Arabia Al Mansour insists Wadjda was not intended as a political film.

''It's about empowering women and pushing for change but I'm not really concerned about political messages,'' she says. ''For me film is an entertainment.

''It's about empowering people through emotion, making them feel something so they change.''