A study of the cinema of Saudi Arabia would be incredibly brief, and would essentially begin and end with Haifaa Al Mansour. The 39-year old writer-director shot three short films before making her 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows, in which she interviewed Saudi women who spoke frankly about their role in the country’s society. After leaving the Middle East to earn her master’s degree in directing and film studies from the University Of Sydney, Al Mansour returned to Saudi Arabia to shoot Wadjda with an all-Saudi cast and German co-producers. It’s the first narrative feature to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, where public movie theaters have been outlawed since the 1980s.
The tale of Wadjda, a 10-year-old Riyadh girl who enters a Koran-recitation competition to earn enough money to buy a bicycle, doubles as a critique of Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist oppression of women. The country’s strict interpretation of Sharia law forbids women from driving, from most jobs, and from socializing with men in public. Consequently, Al Mansour had to film the entire movie in full abaya, and to shoot outdoors, she sat in a car and communicated with her crew via walkie-talkie. But the film was made within the guidelines permitted by the Saudi government, which is now eager to show support for Al Mansour: The day after this interview took place, Saudi Arabia submitted Wadjda as its first-ever Best Foreign-Language Film entry to the Academy Awards. And earlier this year, the government announced that women are permitted to ride bikes in certain recreational areas. Al Mansour sat down with The Dissolve at a Washington, D.C. reception for Wadjda to discuss finding a voice as a Saudi woman director, the romance of her polygamy subplot, and when government censorship can be a good thing.
The Dissolve: How many taboos are you breaking simply by talking to me about your film?
Haifaa Al Mansour: I don’t know. [Laughs.] I don’t know about taboos. I’m not a person, really, who’s trying to break taboos. But I try to do things that make me happy, and that’s how I got into film. I wasn’t trying to be the first female filmmaker. I wasn’t trying to shoot the first film in Saudi or anything. I was just trying to make a film that I love and enjoy and find a voice of my own. So I’m sure I’m breaking taboos, but I haven’t been counting.
The Dissolve: Growing up in a country with no movie theaters and no filmgoing culture, how did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Al Mansour: I didn’t realize I wanted to be a filmmaker. I’ve loved films since I was little. And I watched a lot of films, maybe not in theaters, because there are no theaters, but a lot on VHS. And all of the films were American mainstream, Chinese, and Bollywood. I grew up in a small town, and there was so much power in those films. They took me away from my hometown, the little world I’m in, and they showed me life, people fighting for their country and falling in love. And it was so grand! Feelings that I never felt at home. But I never thought I would be a filmmaker.
“That is such a privilege the director gets sometimes with actors—they’re willing to give them all the feelings, even if they’re hard or whatever, they are willing to go there.”
After I finished college, I moved back to Saudi and started working, and I felt so invisible as a woman. Nothing against me, really, personally, but it is the culture. It weighed me down. And I felt I needed some kind of [way to] vent. I needed to just have a hobby, and I made a short with the help of my sister and my brother, and I sent it to a small competition, and I got accepted. And people started talking to me, all of a sudden, and asking me what I think of stuff. [Laughs.] It gave me that voice, and I really enjoyed making films, so naturally it progressed after that. But I really made films because I was trying to find myself. I was trying to find my voice, I was trying to find a space that I could inhabit as a person and express my opinions.
The Dissolve: Were there a lot of restrictions on the sorts of films the government would allow into the country?
Al Mansour: If they’re religiously controversial, they won’t be allowed. But the market for film in Saudi is all for the mainstream. So I watched blockbusters and all that. But of course there is no nudity, everything is cut. No kisses, everything is cut. So you know that there’s something missing because, chk [makes a cutting gesture], there’s a real jump, you know?
The Dissolve: The film you made, though, doesn’t feel like a blockbuster. It has a much more classical style.
Al Mansour: Of course. When I grew up I tried to learn a little bit about cinema. I did three shorts and a documentary, and then I did my masters in film [outside of the country]. Because I wanted to go. The jump between a feature and whatever else is different. Like, a feature needs a lot of skill. It is not something you can do easily. And I felt like I needed skills. Especially in Saudi, there is no place you can learn [about] cinema. There is nothing.
The Dissolve: Do you feel like your desire to speak out on behalf of Saudi women’s rights emerged out of your desire to be a filmmaker, or the other way around?
Al Mansour: I have a passion of telling stories, and I know that the stories of women in Saudi are untold. And I come from that place that nobody knows about. It’s a hidden world. I have so much access, and I wanted to tell stories about that world that I belong to, to the rest of the world. And that’s how that started. But first, and most of all, it’s because I wanted to make a film. I love working with actors. Since I was a kid—in school I used to do plays, and direct, and write the script for them, and everything. I never acted. Even if I acted, I filled a gap in a small role that they couldn’t find anybody to do. But mostly, I would enjoy telling them what to do and how to feel and stuff like that, since I was little. I felt that I needed to share this. I felt like, this is a place that was far, and people don’t know much about it.
The Dissolve: How much of your cast and crew was new to the idea of filmmaking?
Al Mansour: All of them. Like, because we have TV [in Saudi], Reem Abdullah [the actress who plays Wadjda’s mother] is a big TV star and all that. And the kids, this is the first time for them to film. We don’t have film. Film is a nonexistent form of art in Saudi.
The Dissolve: Was there a lot of culture shock?
Al Mansour: I don’t know if I’d call it culture shock. But Reem, for example, she was contemplating, “I am a big star in TV,” and TV is like, a thing. And film is nothing. So it’s just like, “I don’t know if I should do it.” She passed on the script a couple of times, and I tried to convince her. Because I really liked her aura, and I felt like she would be perfect in the [role of the] mother.
The Dissolve: Why is TV so big, yet films are nonexistent?
Al Mansour: Saudis [have a] big consumption for entertainment, but because we don’t have movie theaters, films never picked up. But because TV is very present and people watch TV a lot, it’s become their form of dramatic art that people go to.
The Dissolve: In your earlier documentary, Women Without Shadows, you approach a lot of women in Saudi who don’t want to be filmed or are scared to have their stories on camera. How did that inform your approach to Wadjda?
“I tried to respect the laws of my country. I wasn’t trying to break the law and make a radical film. There are certain rules for censorship. I followed every single one of them.”
Al Mansour: Well, it made me realize it is very important that people [relate] on a personal level—and the women opened up in the documentary, they wanted just to speak to me. And there was this relationship, a warmth. Working with actresses was the highlight of the [new] film, especially with Waad [Mohammed, who plays Wadjda] and Reem. I felt they were generous in giving me access to their feelings. They went with me where I wanted to take them. And that is such a privilege the director gets sometimes with actors—they’re willing to give them all the feelings, even if they’re hard or whatever, they are willing to go there.
It was the first time for them, for Reem at least, to work with a female director. They usually work with male directors. And I think that this intimacy allowed her to give more.
The Dissolve: How else did the dynamic change with you as a female director?
Al Mansour: I think there was more understanding. I would tell her, “Do like that, when we do like this in that situation, do you remember, when we were kids?” Saudi is very segregated, so women and men have different societies. So she understands. We have the same point of reference, let’s just say.
The Dissolve: To outsiders unfamiliar with a lot of Saudi customs, it seems ludicrous that Wadjda wouldn’t be able to ride a bike. To what extent did you have other audiences, not just Saudi audiences, in mind when you were writing the film?
Al Mansour: I wanted not to be so sucked into the culture, and [to] make something that is accessible. But it was hard for me, because I didn’t want to compromise the authenticity. I wanted to have this local voice. I wanted Saudis, when they see the film, to have this sense of ownership of that thing. Because we don’t have film, and I don’t want them to feel that film is foreign, or that film does not represent them. I feel Saudi Arabia is opening up and there is room for change, and I wanted film to be part of that change, and becoming more tolerant, and people enjoying life and learning more about art.
It was hard for me, because I come from Saudi, and the humor, for example, I didn’t know. I write things because I feel they’re funny. But funny because I belong to that world, and I don’t know if someone [who] belongs to another world will understand and relate to it. So I feel so good when people laugh when I want them to laugh. It makes me, like, “Yes!”
The Dissolve: The film seems to argue that Western culture is already a big part of Saudi life, in everywhere but gender relations. American pop music. American videogames. Can you talk about the contrast between these aspects of American culture and the absurdity of what Wadjda is forbidden to do?
Al Mansour: I wasn’t trying to contrast the American culture to Saudi, but I think the world is moving to become very similar. And Saudi Arabia is a rich nation. People are not cut off from the world. They get access to the Internet. They get access to pop music. They travel. Sometimes in places, they don’t have the means. Saudi Arabia, they have means. They have access to things. And that is why it feels a bit similar.
The Dissolve: Regarding the subplot with Wadjda’s mother trying to convince her husband not to take a second wife: There’s a convention in Western movies about marriage where the wife is trying to spice things up by getting a makeover or buying new outfits. Did you watch a lot of romance films growing up?
Al Mansour: I watched a lot of Meg Ryan. She was big when I was little. All the romantic comedies, and Jennifer Aniston’s films, of course. But I wasn’t trying to do that. It wasn’t an allusion to any of that.
The Dissolve: But it wasn’t a romantic notion?
Al Mansour: It is a romantic notion… For me, it was about this woman who’s trying very much to keep the man she loves. She wants to keep the family intact. She wants to keep everything together. He loves her. He is also in love with her. But the pressure and the culture itself does not allow that kind of love to grow. Because it allows polygamy, for example. It allows the man to take a second wife. It’s pressure on that man to have a son. And if he doesn’t have a son, he’s incomplete, and he needs to do that, even if he breaks the heart of the person he loves so much.
The Dissolve: And yet the husband is barely in the film. He’s sort of this ghostly figure, because he’s important in terms of the story, but he’s barely onscreen.
Al Mansour: That’s right. I was writing the story, and for me, the relationship between the mother and the daughter was very touching. And the absence of the father, it just happens. That’s the way Saudi is. Saudi is very big, and people move for opportunities, and usually men are not very present in a woman’s life, because it’s segregated, so even when he’s in the house, he’s with his friends, and they’re outside. So there’s this distance between the two worlds.
The Dissolve: The movie was filmed with the Saudi government’s permission, which is curious, given that it’s a critique of Saudi culture and social norms. Did you get any sort of pushback from government officials?
Al Mansour: A lot of conservative people, not officials, a lot of conservative people don’t want to see women making films. So they are not very happy. But I tried to respect the laws of my country. I wasn’t trying to break the law and make a radical film. There are certain rules for censorship. I followed every single one of them.
“I’m not a person, really, who’s trying to break taboos. But I try to do things that make me happy, and that’s how I got into film.”
A lot of artists, sometimes they complain about the limited space they have, [rather] than trying to find ways to say what they want within that space. And it is harder, because you always need to re-examine what you say and how you position it. But for me, I feel it is very important to work from within, and to reach people back home. I think it’s time for Saudi Arabia, at least, to move away from conservative ideas. It’s time to be more tolerant, more accepting, and more global citizens, other than thinking that we are here and the rest of the world there, and there’s always a fight. I want to contribute to making the country more tolerant. I don’t want to end up having Saudis [developing] more indulgent hate ideologies. It’s time to move away from all this, and I think film can help.
The Dissolve: What sort of censorship rules did you have to follow?
Al Mansour: Like, men and women cannot sit on a bed together.
The Dissolve: Will you make your future films in Saudi? Do you feel the process of making this movie was too restrictive?
Al Mansour: It was too restrictive. I wasn’t able to shoot outside, I was in a van, I was segregated. But that’s the nature of the country. I don’t know if it will change that fast. Maybe I won’t be in the van [in the future]? I hope so.
The Dissolve: Outside of Saudi, you would have more artistic freedom.
Al Mansour: I think when making a film, there are a lot of things. It is not only the artistic freedom. And artistic freedom is—you can say whatever you want, but do you really want to say it? Maybe you say it in a different way, and it makes you more creative.
The Dissolve: The challenge of censorship?
Al Mansour: It’s the challenge of censorship. It’s good sometimes, good to be economical. [Pauses, reconsiders.] It’s not good. We shouldn’t have it. But I don’t want to complain about things. It’s easy to sit and complain and say, “This is bad.” It’s harder to work to change things. It’s better not to complain. It’s better to make the things that you have work. If you have a small thing, make it work and capitalize on it. And that is, I think, the right attitude. Especially in the Middle East.