Haifaa al-Mansour is Saudi Arabia’s first female film director, a double challenge in a country where film is still a very new medium and women face many restrictions in daily life. But al-Mansour sees signs of change in the conservative kingdom. Here she shares her views on women’s rights, the power of art, and her award-winning debut film, “Wadjda“, about a schoolgirl who wants to ride a bike.
Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced when filming “Wadjda”?
Saudi Arabia is not used to film, it’s a new thing in the kingdom. There aren’t any other female directors, and society is segregated, so whenever we were filming outside, I had to be in a van and talk to the actors on walkie-talkies or mobile phones. It was difficult, because as a director you want to be there for the actors and stage everything, give feedback. But it made me try harder and it worked out in the end. It’s important not to stop at obstacles.
Q: How did the female actors cope with these restrictions?
I knew we would face some problems, so when I was writing the film I chose a young girl as a protagonist. She still has a certain amount of freedom and can be out in the street, but when she becomes a woman, she will have to join the excluded world. If you want to tell a story in Saudi Arabia, it’s sometimes more acceptable to tell it through the eyes of a child, an innocent person. It gives you some leverage in terms of censorship. Filming would have been more difficult with a grown actress. We did film a few scenes with an adult, the girl’s mother, but she would be in a car or right in front of her house, not really in the street.
Q: You describe film as a new thing in Saudi Arabia. Do you see the potential for a thriving film scene in the kingdom?
Yes and no. A lot of young Saudis want to talk about their country, about daily life. For example, young men cannot go to the mall unless they are with their families, even though the mall is at the centre of social life. Thanks to digital filming and the Internet, they can now produce their own films, and they have an audience. But there is nothing solid in terms of financial support, no studio that might give money. Few people believe in film. When we made our film, it was a co-production between Germany and Saudi Arabia. We didn’t have Saudis trained in film – cinematographers, sound technicians – so the technical collaboration was important as well as the funding.
Q: How did your German partners adapt to the conditions of filmmaking in Saudi Arabia?
The Germans were paired with Saudis on the ground, so the project was also about cultural exchange. At first, there were some clashes. The Germans are famous for their work ethic, the Saudis are more laid back. But after the first week, the Germans learned to relax and the Saudis stepped up and turned up on time. It’s very important for Saudis to interact with other cultures, and for other cultures to learn from Saudis as well.
Q: Some restrictions in the kingdom seem to be easing, and women can for example vote in council elections as of 2015. Do you see other signs that Saudi Arabia is changing?
Saudi Arabia is a little bit more open, the rules are a little more relaxed. A lot of conservatives see film and images as corrupt, and forbidden by religion. But in some neighbourhoods where we filmed, people were really kind and excited about the cameras. They wanted to take pictures and even be extras. In other neighbourhoods, people became angry and even started kicking us out, so we couldn’t stay long. If a person is angry at something, I feel it’s not for me to push them. I let people do what they want to do in their neighbourhood, I respect that, and maybe they will become more tolerant when they see the film and its message.
As for women, a lot more women are studying abroad. The family dynamics have changed, people are now proud to see their daughter graduate in the US or UK. So there’s been some social progress. However, I still can’t leave the country without my husband’s permission. There are some laws that definitely need to be reformed.
Q: As an artist, what is your message to the delegates at Davos 2015?
I’d like the delegates to see the importance of art and support it, and understand that it can change hearts and minds. In the Middle East, it’s not just about political change. It’s also about changing values, such as greater respect for women. But changing values is hard, it doesn’t come with an overnight revolution. Art can touch people and make them open up.
Q: And what are you working on now?
I’m working on many, many things! One project I’m very excited about is my next Saudi movie. I’m writing it right now. It’s about young Saudis, a little older than the girl in my first film, trying to find their dreams and their voice.
Interview by Sophie Hardach for Forum Agenda.
Author: Haifaa al-Mansour is Saudi Arabia’s first female film director.
Image: Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour (R) and actress Waad Mohammed pose with a bicycle on the red carpet during the premiere screening of “Wadjda” during the 69th Venice Film Festival in Venice August 31, 2012. REUTERS/Max Rossi