Haifaa Al Mansour: Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker

30 January 2013

Al Mansour
"I really can't stress enough how much education and training can advance a person's vision and capabilities," says Al Mansour. (Image: Flikr/Ammar Abd Rabbo, used under the Creative Commons licence)

Braving sandstorms, nervous partners and conservative bystanders don't often top the list of challenges facing most directors. But for Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker, Haifaa Al Mansour, these were just some of the hurdles confronted along the way to producing her feature debut, Wadjda.

Thankfully with luck and ingenuity, the cinematic vision of the former Master of Film Studies student was finally brought to the big screen with the film's premier at the Venice Film Festival last September. Written and directed by Al Mansour, Wadjda depicts the quest of a spirited 10-year-old girl who wishes to own and ride a green bicycle, following her plight as she grows up in the deeply patriarchal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

It is a pioneering film on many levels: the first movie to be filmed entirely within Saudi Arabia, with an all-Saudi cast and by a female filmmaker and director. Al Mansour remains a trailblazing and controversial figure in her home country, with her short film Who (2003) the first narrative film of any kind to emerge from Saudi Arabia.

But shooting the movie in a Kingdom renowned for its widespread skepticism of the film industry presented some unique difficulties. Al Mansour resorted to inventive strategies to evade strict sanctions and public scorn while crafting Wadjda.

"Without the basic infrastructure of a film industry, every aspect of the film's development presented challenges," she said. "People aren't used to having cameras around so we were especially cautious, even though we had permission to shoot publically…so we had to be ready to work with what we had on any given day."

For some of the film's outdoor scenes in Riyadh, Al Mansour filmed from the seclusion of a van to obscure her interactions with male crewmembers. Even from casting stage, the team struggled with open callouts for the lead role due to sensitivities with women acting in Saudi Arabia.

Yet she remained undeterred, determined to bring the hidden plight of women in her home country to the global stage. And despite the struggles, Al Mansour points to some small but significant changes.

"Saudi is a different place than it was for girls of my generation, and the new generation has access to information and different cultures and ideas that we couldn't even imagine growing up," she said.

"Of course there are still issues with gender equality, and lots of other issues, but change is a reality now, and in Saudi it is always a delicate and dangerous process. It won't change overnight, not in a positive way anyway, so it is up to all of us to work within the system to try and influence that change the direction we think is best for the country."

The film has enjoyed both international success and critical acclaim, winning the Art Cinema Award in the Orizzonti category at the Venice Film Festival and being named Best Movie at the 9th Dubai International Film Festival in 2012. Among comments from the Venice Film Festival jury was praise for the film's "insight into a rarely seen world, the female realm in countries with strict adherence of Sharia law".

This feminist thread is a constant across much of her previous work. However, far from seeking to be openly political in the film, Al Mansour said her hope in Wadjda was to "keep people guessing", igniting conversations about gender relations through portraying an honest picture of women in her restricted world.

"I want to tell stories, and I think all good stories have within them larger issues and themes that go beyond the individual story," she said. "The conflict between tradition and modernity, more than anything else, is a central theme to most of my work. The changing role of women, within the context of those changes, is at the forefront of that conflict within Saudi society.

"The new generation of Saudi women now has a huge window to the outside world so they can see and compare the problems in their country within a larger context and with other situations that present their own advantages or challenges."

It's hard not to draw parallels between the fearless filmmaker and her intrepid subject. But Al Mansour insists the film's protagonist is more an amalgamation of influential figures from her childhood than a strictly autobiographical portrayal of life in Saudi Arabia.

"Growing up I knew so many girls with so much potential, and most of them never had a chance to do anything, so Wadjda is more a story about them and their situations than my own."

Despite the cloistered confines of her Saudi upbringing, Al Mansour maintains she felt unfettered in her career decision to become a filmmaker, even if her dream lacked precedent.

"I never felt limited in my options growing up because of my parents, who let us believe that we could be whatever we aspired to be," Al Mansour said. "They somehow weren't affected, or just didn't care, about the intense social pressure that most Saudi parents feel to keep their children confined to 'acceptable' professional aspirations. I've always been interested in all forms of storytelling but film has always represented a special, romantic sort of escapism for me."

It was this passion that led Al Mansour to undertake a Master of Film Studies at the University of Sydney. Driven by aspirations to further develop Saudi Arabia's fledgling film industry, the director sought to enhance both her technological skills and her appreciation of the medium from an international perspective.

"I really can't stress enough how much education and training can advance a person's vision and capabilities," said Al Mansour. "I had so much fun experimenting with the 16mm cameras and shooting stop-motion films in my garage. But I benefited most from all of the amazing international films I was exposed to through the courses. The discussions and readings on these films really helped me to think about the messages and techniques I wanted to build into my own project."

As Wadjda opens in cinemas internationally, Al Mansour is carrying the weighty moniker of Saudi Arabia's first female filmmaker in her stride.

"I definitely want to continue to tell stories about Saudi Arabia. It is such a rich environment for storytelling and has so many unexplored narratives just waiting to be tapped," she said. "I hope that the success of Wadjda will encourage other Saudi directors, and artists of every medium, to push the boundaries of their work and get our stories out to the rest of the world."

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