Haifaa Al-Mansour discusses her feature film debut with The Fan Carpet’s Paul Risker
Following successful screenings at the Cannes, Venice and London film festivals last year, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s feature debut Wadjda earns its UK theatrical on Friday 19 July.
On occasions either the story of the making of a film or the story of the filmmaker themselves transcends the film itself. Wadjda is a significant moment within Middle Eastern filmmaking and within the global story or heritage of film.
The Fan Carpet was fortunate to have an opportunity to interview Haifaa ahead of Friday’s release, in a conversation that used the film as a means to compel a wide ranging discussion of the film, the writer-director behind the projected images and her two worlds.
Why a career in filmmaking?
Just because I wanted to have a voice of my own; I just wanted to have a hobby. I finished college in 1991 and I went back Saudi to work. In Saudi I felt so invisible. As a young person trying to assert myself in the work place, naturally you were invisible. Nothing is against me per say, but it is hard and it was a low point in my life. I wanted to do something that makes me happy and so I made a short and I submitted it to a small local competition in Abu Dahbi. They accepted it and I was so happy and they invited and sent me a ticket to go to the festival. So I went and they said “You are the first female filmmaker” and I said “I guess so” [Laughs].
Wadjda is a film of firsts. It is the first feature film shot entirely inside the Kingdom. You are the first Saudi female filmmaker and it is the first performance by the films lead actress Waad Mohammed.
It wasn’t planned to be that. I wasn’t really trying for it to be the first film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. I wasn’t trying to have this film be Waad Mohammed’s first performance. I wasn’t trying to do that, it just happened and I think that it maybe gave it this fresh feel. For me there was no history to rely on. There’s nothing like a film school in Saudi Arabia where you can study Saudi Arabian filmmaking, what it looks like; anything I can rely on for anything. So I had to use my life culture as a type of pattern on The Bicycle Thieves and all the Italian Neo-Realism and Iranian films like Jafar Panahi’s, where they have children to have more space. I also wanted to tell an aspiring story and because I didn’t have tradition to rely on while I was writing it, I didn’t know where it was taking me. I didn’t know anything; I was just trying to come up with a story. When you are an artist sometimes you experiment with things and you hope it will work.
Beneath the guise of simplicity, a story about childhood you expose a rich subtext of the relationship between men and women, society and its people and therein you offer a rich social commentary. Wadjda however is not a geographically centralised film, but offers a universal message. As you have said in previous interviews, “I hope the film offers a unique insight into my own country and speaks of universal themes of hope and perseverance that people of all cultures can relate to.”
When I was making the film I didn’t want elaborate shots. For me I just wanted to bring life and Saudi life is just so rich. There is so much there and there are so many things that people can come up with. I want them to sense what it is to be a Saudi without me trying to be smart; in as much as conveying how it is to be there. I was worried, because when you make something like this that is very subtle, people might not see that, but I felt I should have faith in the audience and have faith that if I thought this scene was interesting for me that someone else would see it the same way. With that faith I tried to believe that people would see the subtlety and would understand and grasp it. That was my approach and I feel that it helped me deal with a very complex and conservative culture like Saudi where it is not easy to just say things, but it is easier just to do life and bring it up.
In the West we are accustomed to a freedom in our arts, and I was hoping you would talk a little about the challenges confronting filmmakers in Saudi Arabia.
Like in the West there are a lot of financing problems. Convincing people to come on board is universal and every filmmaker goes through the same thing. But in Saudi there is also not much space for artists to say things. For me it was necessary to capitalise on that space and make the best out of it and use it to the maximum rather than complain how small it is. Also for me as a woman filming in Saudi wasn’t easy. It is a segregated country and I’m not supposed to be outside in the sun and all that, and as a woman I was trying to deal with a lot of everyday restrictions. As a filmmaker I had to be more mobile, I had to be visible; I had to do things; so I guess it was a lot of those kinds of things.
Can an oppressive environment compliment art?
I am speaking about Saudi, but I think being in this space creates an atmosphere for storytelling because there is always tension between what people want, tradition and customs. Also with what is happening around the world there is modernity. There is the internet and Saudi’s have access to flat screens and cars and yet people are very traditional. There is a constant tension between the two. It is a young country and all that creates an amazing place for storytelling, how human beings react and laugh regardless, and how they find ways to be happy and to survive within those limitations. It is an amazing place to tell stories.
Wadjda strikes me as a celebration of childhood and children as the agents of future change. To what extent do you think the film reflects this in terms of your intentions, specifically the importance of childhood?
Saudi Arabia is definitely changing. There is a movement towards modernity, very slow yes but this is happening. I wanted to see kids who are happy and how a whole younger generation are willing to change and be the change in a way that is not very radical but very personal. I feel that it is very important to have this personal mission of being happy and having a dream and changing. For example, men in the Middle East always want to be the boss and they always want to be aggressively assertive, putting themselves in the position of authority. It is very charming to see a person like Abdullah, the young man in the film, who is confident enough to give Wadjda space to be who she wants to be and who will respect her and love her for that, for being unique, for being different, for being all of that and who will support her. There is so much charm and I hope people see that and it gives them a little different perspective.
There is a sense of hope exhibited in the film, specifically in one of the final shots in which the men watch the children, Wadjda amongst them ride on by. In that moment convention and custom is seen to be insignificant. Children have a privileged liberty and freedom and it’s almost as though the adult men wish they could retreat back to that.
Absolutely, yes! I think you can tell so many stories from a child’s perspective. It is never dull because they always take something that we take for granted. There is nothing in it and they spin it around and it is exciting again. I have kids of my own and they are always asking questions that are funny [laughs].
The conclusion of a film is only the conclusion of a chapter in the lives of the characters. On that note what does the future hold in store for Wadjda? Will she conform to custom and tradition or will she chase her dreams and the opportunity for change?
I think if she continues to believe in herself she’ll be… There is now so much happening now for women. Women have to believe in themselves and listen to the rest of the world around them. Society is very conservative and so they tell women “You shouldn’t do that, you should do this.” It is very important for women to have their own perspective. For me the future is very…
It was essential to find the right space geographically for the last shot. I wanted an urban neighbourhood; then coming up from that to a highway with nothing behind it. We looked around Riyadh to find a place as it was in the script. There was a sense of danger in there. Nothing is taken for granted. It is hopeful; it is about the future but it is still realistic. It needs a lot of work.
Women are associated with the maternal and through woman, through Mother Nature things can change for the better. Women are the force for change despite the dominant role men want to occupy.
I think there should be equality between men and women. Women are very important in setting the fundamentals and the family life, but for me change should come from men and women. I wasn’t trying to make a film only with women, but they are the hope. Men and society should also grow.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know the answer, but I definitely want to work with the same production companies from Germany and Saudi Arabia and our co-producer on the film. We will try to make something in Saudi as I feel it is such an exciting place; there is so much to tell. We shall see the next adventure will be.
WADJDA is released in UK cinemas from 19th July and Haifaa Al-Mansour will be speaking at the ONE WORLD MEDIA FESTIVAL taking place 8 & 9 November visit One World Media for details.