If a law forbids women from driving vehicles, how can a rebel film maker resist telling a story that flouts the rule? Haifa Al Mansour’s film Wadjda bases itself on a girl who covets a bicycle and what all she does to own it. From the girl who was introduced to cinema through videos by her father, what was it like growing up to be Saudi Arabia’s first woman film maker? Haifa Al Mansour speaks to Manju Ramanan on her journey
Tell us about the film Wadjda?
The film is based on the young girl Wadjda who passes a toy store window with a beautiful green bicycle and covets it. Although it is forbidden for girls to ride bicycles, Wadjda hatches a plan to earn enough money to afford the bike by secretly selling products in her school yard. But her plans are soon exposed, leaving her with only one last chance to make the money she needs; a Quran recital competition with a big cash prize. Wadjda tries to find a sly and cunning way to rise above her fellow competitors to make her most cherished dream come true… the green bicycle. I tried to put a human face on culture of KSA through the film.
How was the film received when it was showcased in Dubai?
Wadjda opened the Gulf Film Festival 2013 and that speaks for itself. It went on to win the Muhr Arab/Feature/Best Actress: Waad Mohammed (Actor/Actress), it won the Muhr Arab/Feature/Best Film : Roman Paul (Producer) and won of Muhr Arab/ Feature/Best Film : Gerhard Meixner (Producer). It was Saudi Arabia’s entry to the Cannes this year.
How difficult was it to shoot the film in Saudi Arabia?
There is a lot of television in Saudi Arabia and we had TV producers in the crew who helped us get permissions. We did a lot of shooting from inside vehicles. People are conservative sometimes and at times they didn’t like cameras. Barring a few neighborhoods, everyone else was very cooperative. Saudi Arabia is a conservative country. But in many places we were welcomed really well – people were happy to pose with us. I wasn’t able to shoot on the streets but I was in a van with a monitor. It was important to respect the culture of the region. My aim was to make the film, not to create clashes.
Did you grow up in KSA?
I lived in KSA till high school and went to college in Egypt. My father was extremely progressive and didn’t live to see the full length feature film I shot (her father is the late poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, who introduced her to films by video due to lack of theatres). People in the extended family would write to him about how he could allow me to make films but it never bothered him. He was proud of me. I then got married to an American diplomat and we went to Australia. I got the chance to study film while I was in Sydney and my husband helped me. Now we are in Bahrain and close to my family since we are in the Middle East region.
Do you see the west stereotype the Arab world and especially Saudi Arabia through its media?
Yes it happens. We need to look at cultures and traditions of a particular country and then derive its own criticism that is organic instead of viewing it from a purely foreign perspective. If I say that Saudi Arabia is tribal, it doesn’t mean primitive. It is a tradition in the Arab world where the families are known by the name
of their tribes. They have a unique identity thus. Yes I agree that change is important to all societies, not just to the Arab world. I go to my mother’s home for inspiration. Saudi is a layered society and there is a chance to
tell so many stories.
How did you cast 12-year-old Waad Mohammed as the lead?
A lot of Saudis don’t want their girls to be in front of camera. But when Waad came in wearing jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers, hair curled, listening to Justin Bieber, she looked exactly like a teenager in London. I realised there is a universal youth culture.
Were you pushing the envelope by talking about a cycling girl in Saudi Arabia?
The film talks of an issue but doesn’t clash head on. I wanted people to embrace and love the film and not get intimidated by it. There is a huge space for women in Saudi society and if they come forward there will be a lot of change. There are 30 women in the Shurah council in politics today and all this gives me the confidence about the country. Soon women will also have the right to vote. We come from a conservative place and the change is slow but it is organic.
Was your marriage to an American diplomat frowned upon?
My elder sister married a British. She paved the way (laughs)
Did the fact that you are married to an American diplomat help you in your career?
Yes it does. My husband has been extremely encouraging. We live in Bahrain and we are close to my home country. My father too was extremely encouraging as a person. He had relatives write to him about me and how it wasn’t good that I was doing the kind of work I did and it didn’t bother him. My mother today who lives in Saudi Arabia is very proud of me and enjoying all the attention she gets from friends and family. I guess, we have to pave the path.
What do you mean when you say that change in KSA has to be organic?
The outside world perceives the KSA as conservative but for me it is the place I grew up. It is a layered society and has to be respected for what it is and not what the western world feels it should be. Women will have the right to vote soon – times are changing and we are all part of that change. We are developing our own model of evolution – other country’s models don’t work here. There are social limitations but the freedom of expression is higher compared to some other countries in the Middle East. There are issues that are regional to the space that plays a big role that cannot and need not be judged by people from outside. For instance the people there are always faced with complex situations- for instance issues like a teenager cannot get to the mall because it is a family day. If you look at it in a typical way, it is nothing important but it is an interesting topic because it is one of the many regular social situations in Saudi Arabia. It is tangled.
How did Saudis around the world react to the film?
The challenge is getting more people to see the film as there are no public cinemas in KSA. However, many Saudis watch films via satellite TV and DVDs. A lot of people embraced the film it when it was shown in France. Many of them wrote to me that they were happy that a film such as this had been experimented upon. Yes, I also got hate mail from people who hadn’t seen the film or won’t see the film (laughs) I understand that there are people who are conservative and who won’t see the film but will comment on it. I respect and sympathise with them and try not to offend them.
What is the difference between a woman film maker and a male film maker or is there?
I don’t know. That is a very loaded question. But I think women are sensitive and nobody understands Saudi society better than women. Women across the world have to always convince people and be diplomatic. But that doesn’t make them weaker in any way. That is just one of the other ways of self-assertion. You don’t have to shout at the top of your voice to be heard. You can state what you say with conviction.
What are your future projects?
I will be directing a period drama where Elle Fanning will play Mary Shelley in the story of the budding author’s
romance with poet Percy titled A Storm in the Stars. We are hoping to shoot in 2015 from a screenplay by Australian writer Emma Jensen.
Haifa Al Mansour began her filmmaking career with three shorts, Who?,The Bitter Journey and The Only Way Out. The Only Way Out won prizes in the United Arab Emirates and in the Netherlands. She followed these with the documentary Women Without Shadows, which was shown at 17 international festivals. The film received the Golden Dagger for Best Documentary in the Muscat Film Festival and a special jury mention in the fourth Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam. Haifa Al-Mansour was a guest at the 28th Three Continents Festival in Nantes, France. Haifa Al Mansour’s first film Keif al-Hal? released in 2006, is regarded as Saudi Arabia’s first big budget film and starred a Saudi actress, though it was shot in Dubai by a Palestinian director.