These are heady times for Haifaa Al Mansour. She is the first Saudi Arabian of either gender to direct a feature film (she also wrote the script) and to shoot an entire movie inside the Kingdom.
In another first, last week Saudi Arabia’s Society for Culture and Arts submitted "Wadjda” for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category – a distinguished honor under any circumstances – but especially so originating from a society where women are prohibited from driving automobiles (a ban on bicycles was lifted earlier this year); where the sound of a female voice in public can arouse as much commotion as the sight of her naked body; where women are expected to scatter and hide like cockroaches from the gaze of men; where wives routinely receive greater punishment than husbands for spousal murder.
In this context, “Wadjda” receiving Academy Award consideration is downright miraculous, and the honor didn’t go unnoticed back home. Al Mansour said, “I went on Twitter and I had like maybe a thousand followers in two hours, all Saudis, saying, ‘Hi!’, ‘Congratulations!’ and stuff like that. I feel it’s about time.”
Culture and Events sat down with Haifaa Al Mansour at her Fairmont suite in San Francisco on Monday to talk about “Wadjda” and what it was like to make Saudi Arabia’s first feature-length film under the constraints of the country’s extreme patriarchy.
See Rick's review of "Wadjda" HERE.
You have said that you couldn’t have made this film 10 years ago. What’s changed?
Al Mansour: I think part of it is that Saudi Arabia is a young country – maybe 65% is below the age of 25. So that is a huge force.
And the other thing is access to information, access to the Internet and all that. Religious leaders are re-examining their literature that emerged during the ‘80s and ‘90s and providing critique that is more open, more lenient. Saudi Arabia is not closed anymore; they cannot shelter the country. People see the world and can be part of it.
Since April, women are now allowed to ride bicycles in Saudi Arabia – under controlled conditions. You live with your husband and children in Bahrain. Are girls allowed to ride bicycles there?
Al Mansour: Bahrain is a more open country, but it is really hot there, so I don’t think they’d want to! But yes, it’s very open. People are very similar in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, the way they think. They’re very tribal.
Saudi has Mecca also, so a lot of people feel like we need to be the most religious. But also Saudi has passed through a very conservative phase, where there’s been a very restrictive, conservative interpretation of religion, mixed with the tribal customs and all that, (which) became very dominant in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
A lot the literature of that movement excluded woman from public art…music was viewed as corrupt and something evil. We shouldn’t listen to it.
What about religious music?
Al Mansour: The religious music was only chanting – no instruments, only percussion – but only in weddings and only in certain situations.
It sounds so difficult, given that public cinema was banned in Saudi Arabia since the ‘80s. How did you get involved with film under these circumstances?
Al Mansour: I’ve never felt like I couldn’t do things. I always had access to music and TV and film. A lot of my classmates would think I was corrupt; I have secular ideas – “you be careful of that girl!” – and it’s hard for a kid growing up in a small town, right?
But I’m very grateful for my parents, for giving us that shelter to grow normally.
Were you breaking the law by shooting the film?
Al Mansour: No. I tried not to (laughter). It’s a segregated country, so whenever we were outside I have to be in a van and I have a walkie-talkie and talk to everybody by remote control: “Hey, look up! Look down! Make the frame wider!” It was difficult not to be there without the crew!
For me, it wasn’t my intention to fight or to clash with the public as much as make a film and hopefully contribute to the dialogue and hopefully make the country more tolerant and accepting.
I worked really hard on the film and it was really difficult to finance and a lot of people wouldn’t understand that; they wouldn’t understand I’m trying to make a film empowering women – but it’s like, “Where is the victim?” I didn’t want to make a film about a woman being raped and slapped and stuff!
Are other forms of artistic expression restricted in Saudi Arabia, like fine arts and performing arts?
Al Mansour: Oh yeah, like you cannot make a body of an animal or a human being or a living thing…
Al Mansour: Oh, sculpture, forget it. Because in Arabia it was considered pagan.
So Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci would have been in trouble, even if they were Muslims?
Al Mansour: (Laughter) I remember when we were kids, we had pictures of a rabbits or chickens, because we had to learn the words. The bodies were all with their heads cut off – that means we’re not pretending to be god. But these things are changing. People are moving away from this very quickly. It was only a phase, and now Saudi is opening up; people are becoming more rational, and they are putting religion in the right context.
It is really nice, because Saudi will always be religious, just like Italy, for example. There is another phase of religion, not to be militant, just to be more tolerant, more loving.
You found Waad Mohammed, the girl who plays Wadjda, one week before shooting began. She was quite a discovery. She was 12?
Al Mansour: She was 11. It’s amazing to see the chemistry between her and Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), the little boy. They had so much fun during the shoot. They enjoyed being part of the only film made in Saudi! They are the stars, and they had fun with it. It was really nice; it made me believe in the future, just seeing them working hard and enjoying being on the set.
Reem Abdulla, who plays Wadjda’s mother, had done mostly TV acting before. You have said you were very happy with how she dealt with the transition to film. How does TV acting differ from film acting?
Al Mansour: Acting for TV in Saudi, it’s like Mexican TV – overacting – very melodramatic. It’s kind of rigid. I don’t know how to describe it – very emotional rather than subtle. People shouldn’t feel that the person’s acting. It should be a believable performance, not a caricature.
Earlier this year, three men from the United Arab Emirates were forcibly ejected from the Jenadrivah Heritage and Culture Festival in Riyadh over concerns they were “too handsome for women to resist.” Were they running around in their Speedos?
Al Mansour: I don’t think so (laughter)…
Do you think women would have complained, or did the moral police make a judgement call about the men's irresistability on their own?
Al Mansour: I’m sure it was the men, I don’t know (laughter), it is very weird, I tell you. I think the police would do that because sometimes they want to prevent the things they see – there is potential danger of men and women mixing together.
So the police, who presumably are male, are gonna say, “In our professional opinion, these men are so attractive they must be thrown out of here.”
Al Mansour: Exactly. A lot of Saudis had exactly the same kind of discussion when this story appeared: “Why did they throw them out?” The Saudis were really embarrassed about this and situations like this happen because there’s (an) organization like the religious police. It is very, very much conservative, that kind of mentality where there’s suspicion and they have to act as protective of men and women’s morality in the society.
But the thing is, it is changing; they’re not as powerful as before. Before they can arrest and have the power to put people in jail. Now, this (power) is only with the civil police. So there are a lot of things that are changing, to make things more normal in Saudi. But still, incidents like this happen because there are still people with that kind of mentality. The good thing is the general public, exactly like you, make fun of it.
Well, I don’t like to make fun of other cultures – there’s so much to make fun of here in the U.S….
Al Mansour: No, it’s funny!
See playdates and locations for “Wadjda” HERE.
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