The first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia, Haifaa Al-Mansour has the distinction of directing the first feature film ever shot entirely in Saudia Arabia: the neorealist drama Wadjda. The film accomplished another milestone when it was submitted to the Oscars as Saudi Arabia's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category. Given the buzz surrounding the film, it would seem a shoo-in for a nomination. Prior to Wadjda, Al-Mansour earned her bachelor's degree in Literature at the American University in Cairo, and her Master's degree in Directing and Film Studies from the University of Sydney, as well as filming three shorts and the award-winning 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows. I spoke to Al-Mansour at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.
Groucho: I really loved the film. It's very lovely—sweet but not sticky-sweet.
Haifaa Al-Mansour: (Laughs.)
Groucho: Not working hard on the audience, but just telling the story. I think it's the best of both worlds, the film: it's culturally specific, and it's also universal and accessible in its coming-of-age themes and its parenting concerns and the romantic story or sort of anti-romantic story—the romantic insecurity, I guess.
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Okay.
Groucho: Did you give conscious thought to telling a story that would travel well around the globe?
Haifaa Al-Mansour: Yeah. I had the German co-producers. So it is co-produced between Germany [and Saudi Arabia], so I knew that it will open somewhere else. And I wanted people to enjoy it. But it was hard because I didn't want to compromise authenticity. So it is like always working with [them] on this, and going between, back and forth, yeah. And there are lots of moments that I found it was difficult to write, like the humor. 'Cause the humor can be very specific to a certain culture. So yeah. So you always question, "Will people get it? Is it too specific?" Yeah.
G: Did you use other people as a sounding board for that?
HA-M: I went to Sundance [Screen]writers Lab, so yeah—
G: Oh, right. Sure, of course.
HA-M: So other people read the script. Yeah, I got initial feedback. But it's still—you never know. With a script, it doesn't matter. You never know until it's out there, and people react to it. So yeah. I feel amazing. I'm so grateful when people just laugh when I want them to laugh...!
G: Good instincts! So I was reminded of the work of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. I don't know if—
HA-M: Yeah, absolutely.
G: And you've talked about your affection for Italian neorealist films, like Bicycle Thieves. Perhaps there's a bit of a nod to that with the bicycle story in your film. And obviously you draw on literary influences, because you studied literature. Can you talk about what were some of your key influences in developing your storytelling style and also your cinematic style?
HA-M: I was trying very much to—because I come from an oral kind of culture, so I was very obsessed with structure. I really wanted to get—because, for me, it's telling a story is always like—writing a script, it's different than just, like, saying something. So you have to do "When is a turning point? When's the third act end? And when's the climax of that thing? So it was really—I tried to read so much about that. And that is when it comes to writing. For cinema, I think it is mixed: Italian neorealism mixed with Iranian cinema, because I felt like Iranian cinema would teach me how I can reflect on my culture within the space I have, without really being overly radical or something. And still [maximize] the space. But I always wanted to tell a story—like, I know sometimes Iranian cinema goes very slow, and it's very, you know, philosophical sometimes. I don't want to take that approach. I wanted to take the symbolism and the documentary style and the simplicity, but I wanted the narrative very much like beginning, end and you know? A story. I always wanted a story.
G: I also wanted to ask about your film education, which I gather was mostly on video as a child.
G: Were many of those films American films?
HA-M: Oh yeah.
G: And what are some of the ones you remember watching?
HA-M: Snow White. Evil Dead. They were not rated, I remember: like being traumatized. Like I don't know how old I was: like a child, a kid! And...we're watching this horror movie, just because it was popular in the video store, and it ended up in our living room. Yeah, but a lot of mainstream. I remember "Thriller," from Michael Jackson. It was a very popular kind of video. And my brother was like "We'll see the coolest. Dance. Ever!" And we were all waiting! And we were twelve kids, you know? And my mother and my—all like—and Michael Jackson started dancing, which is really nice, but it is for, like, older people. They [were] kinda like "Too—." Some of the moves weren't appropriate, and my mom got upset. Yeah, but mostly pop culture. Nothing high cinema. I learned it later; I went to Sydney University.
HA-M: That is where I did my Master['s].
G: Yeah. Now did anyone ever pose what you considered to be a clear and present danger to you finishing the film, to proceeding with the film? Or while you were filming were you able to, for the most part, fly under the radar?
HA-M: No, we were okay. We never—nothing serious, physically telling us we will not finish. But we were—
G: Noticed certainly.
HA-M: No, not noticed. There was a danger that we [would] not finish, because we would run out of money, and things weren't moving. You know, as if we were swimming against the trend, like with the current? That is what we were doing, 'cause the culture is not used to film. Access to location: like you would go to a place, and it's not ready. We're supposed to start filming, and I go there, and it's not ready. I cannot film. Because people didn't know what to do with it, and stuff like that.
G: So you had to also be the film school for your crew at times, I'm guessing.
HA-M: Yeeess...but it was mixed German and [Saudi], so there was a lot of mentorship going on. But it is like—we were in mid-shoot, and we weren't—we were supposed to be here (gestures mid-range); we were here (gestures low). And we [did]n't have money, so we started cutting from the script, started combining dates, we tried to pay a little bit of overtime. But no matter, we are a small production company. We cannot—Razor is like a foreign-film kind; we are not studio. We cannot stay, like, three or four days extra. So, yeah. No, that was very scary. That scared me so much.
G: And you were able to make it up through the clever rescheduling?
HA-M: Yeah, we scheduled, and we cut some scenes; some scenes had to go. We never got to them; we combined some scenes.
G: You would never know.
HA-M: Yeah. I felt that very important to be economical. Yeah, a lot of filmmakers...want to film as much as much as possible, and of course, yeah. But for me, it was a good exercise to go there. But also, the editor was in Berlin, so we would send the rushes, and he would come back to me and tell me, "The scene doesn't work!" And I'd feel devastated. You know, it is the ultimate challenge for a filmmaker: after we finish the scene, you tell me it doesn't work. So you have to go and try to fix it. And we could not finish a lot of—we weren't able to take some certain takes, because we didn't have the time, and we didn't have the actors sometimes. The punctuality. It's a different working environment for them. So it was kind of like altogether, yeah, stressful. So the wrap party, I think I slept after it like I'd never slept! And I lost a lot of weight, too. And that was [a] good thing.
G: (Laughs.) On the bright side.
HA-M: But I gained it back! If you lose weight...
G: (Laughs.) Well, you make another film!
HA-M: Yeah, that's right.
G: So there's a kind of ambiguity about Wadjda's study of the Qur'an in the film.
G: On the one hand, it could be seen as a girl awakening to her religion, the importance of that study, even if she was inspired to begin that out of greed. But on the other hand, the verses she recites in the competition are ironic at best, right?
G: And at worst, they're pointing a finger at her for her lack of honest spirituality. I actually expected it was going to be a plot point that she had been entrapped to read that verse, by the teacher. Can you talk about what your literary intentions were on this point?
HA-M: For me, if you want to make a film about Saudi Arabia, there is no way you can escape religion; it's a big part of people's lives, whether they are religious or not. And I wasn't trying really to dig into their hearts, and just to say they are faithful, this is a person who is not faithful, or make those kind of judgements about how people—but religion is a big part of everyday life, and people find themselves in situations where they position themselves next to religion, or something. They use religion sometimes, but religion becomes part of the—and for me, as a filmmaker, I felt it's very interesting to see how religion functions in the society, rather than how people are religious or not. It's more of like the bigger picture of how religion is woven in, and how people tangle with it, and stuff like this. So the way to bring that, for me, is only to bring life. This recitation competition is very common and advertised all the time, every time I go. Not only in Saudi Arabia, but all over the Arab world, like all the Muslim world, this memorization of the Qur'an is very common, with either a cash prize or a big prize.
G: So tell me about the Chuck Taylor sneakers...they belong to the actress? She showed up with those to her audition?
G: That's an urban legend?
HA-M: That's from the script, yeah. (Laughs.) No, it is not—she didn't show up with them. It was part of the script. And for me, I felt like the sneakers represent a lot, especially when it comes to punk, and being rebellious and all that. And for me, I wanted a character that, for one thing, has good taste. And the other thing is to show this individuality. But all the actors, none of them bring any costume or wardrobe. It's all from us.
G: Had you sported those yourself as a girl?
HA-M: Oh, yeah! And, no, I still have mine. And they're old and worn and have holes in them, but I love them. Yeah.
G: So how frowned upon is it for a girl to ride a bike in Saudi Arabia today? Does it depend on the neighborhood? 'Cause I've heard you talk about certain pockets of conservativism, certain neighborhoods that are a bit more...
HA-M: Uh-huh. No, it's not. It's a very—more—in gated communities sometimes, maybe it's easier, but usually it is not—it is dangerous for a girl to just go roaming the streets on a bicycle. But now, in April, they changed the law so in recreation areas and parks, women can ride bicycles, but still with a—
G: Limitation. Not for transportation, right?
HA-M: Yeah, not for transportation. And I think there were—a lot of girls enjoy going on those, like, I don't know what they call them; they're from the desert? They go peeww, peeww!
G: Like scooters?
HA-M: Yeah, scooters, yes!
G: Dirt bikes.
HA-M: Yes. So that is very—it's one of the popular sports in Saudi. And I was surprised that a lot of women come to me, not only from Saudi, from other parts of the Arab world, telling me that they weren't allowed to ride bicycles until they were thirty or something. Because their families were worried that something physical would happen to them. I think, yeah.
G: Well, any situation where there's some kind of possibility—it hovers over you like this fear. Repression oftentimes wields that fear to get what it wants, right?
HA-M: Yeah, I know. I don't know. Just like—. Weird people. (Chuckles.)
G: You can't really have freedom if you're supervised in your freedom[, as female bicyclists are in parks]. I want to talk a little about the character of the husband. To me, what's tragic about him is that he's capable of being a good husband, and we see him being a good husband and good father, in certain circumstances, but the society makes it so easy for him—it's tempting for him to just sort of—he's allowed to behave badly by the society.
G: So did you see that character as...emblematic of the problem of ongoing male dominance in the culture?
HA-M: It is more about—yeah, it is about people who will give in to the social pressure without really standing up for themselves. And it is hard to stand up for yourself, whether you are a man or a woman, in a culture like Saudi, because it is tribal. And you exist as a part of the group, not as—individualism is not really big. And it is sad to see things like this. And also, because polygamy is allowed, yeah, it's an easy thing to do. For me—
G: People tend to do what they can get away with.
HA-M: Exactly. And, for me, I think polygamy is—if we want to—it's not, for me...to concentrate on polygamy [as much] as to concentrate on the broken love story. And show people how it is, what it means for a man to leave his daughter for something like that. So maybe, hopefully touch them and make them reconsider. And doesn't [mean] that we change the law—it would be great—but it is to change how people think...
G: I also like that, on the flip side—the other important male character is the boy.
G: And, like Wadjda, I think he represents hope for the next generaion. Right?
HA-M: Absolutely, yeah.
G: He's a bit more progressive, right?
HA-M: He's progressive. And he's very confident. It is the other example that men in the Arab world don't, I think, see: someone who's not afraid of an opinionated woman, who's willing to embrace her. And he likes her. He loves her for it. And there is a lot of charm in a man like that, who is confident enough that he will let her have her own space next to him. Yeah.
G: It was very sweet. The scene with the announcement of the sin, in the school—
G: Instantly reminded me of a prison-camp scene, like with a commandant—
G: In front of the camp. Was that at all intentional in how you dressed the set and blocked the actors?
HA-M: (Laughs.) Well, it is very much documentary-style. This is how it is. So if it is similar, it is similar!
G: (Laughs.) Right, okay.
HA-M: But it is like—for me, yes, it is like the ultimate thing is to expose people in public in the country, in a place like Saudi, where the person's reputation is everything. Where there is a huge value on—what is private is private, but once you go to public, you have to keep a persona, and people should know only certain things about you, and stuff like this. So just exposing that makes a person very vulnerable and breaks them. And it is used a lot, these kinds of exposing people as sinners or something like this. And it is like a tool to intimidate people and keep them in line. A lot of men, when they date women, they take pictures and they tell them, "I'm going to show your pictures online!" And it's like, whatever! But it is for the ultimate—the girl feels so scared. And so stuff like that because she feels like, yeah, her pictures will be all over and stuff.
G: And when you as a filmmaker are out speaking for your film, representing yuor film, is that tactic ever used against you? That attempt to intimidate you with some kind of a public shaming or accusation?
HA-M: (Chuckles.) I don't have—I'm sure they are trying, but I don't have—my picture, I am very proud of who I am. I appear on TV; I have no problem. I passed that stage. But they dig into my personal life. And they want to say things about my husband and stuff, but we don't care. We don't read [it].
G: That's a good policy: not to read that stuff. So theater and TV seem to be pretty vital and vibrant in Saudi Arabia, but film has been so slow to develop. Why do you think that is?
HA-M: 'Cause there is no money in it. That is no industry. People want—there is serious money when it comes to TV series, and if you go and pitch a TV series to the Saudi TV, for example, and you get approved, you get a lot of money to produce and all that. So a lot of people go to those big studios, TV studios and plug themselves into that kind of machine. But there is no similar machine for film, and nobody cares. And we had a really difficult time financing; I went to all those TV stations trying to find money, and all those funds for the Middle East. And they were—for one thing, they didn't believe in the story, and this is, again, a film from Saudi Arabia. But Rotana Studios came on board, and I was very grateful for them. They saved the project, last minute.
G: Given that this film is proving to be an international success—
G: It seems to be well on track—do you think it's something that the powers that be might look at and say, "Well, maybe we ought to have a film commission. Maybe we ought to be producing films. Maybe there is money in it.
HA-M: In Saudi? Yeah, maybe in Saudi. I think companies have started reconsidering, but still, it's a small film; it doesn't have this blockbuster kind of success. And if you want to create that, you have to have a market back at home. And in Saudi Arabia, that will be very much based on if Saudi Arabia opens theaters, because it is one of the biggest countries in the Middle East that is stable, and [where] cinema can grow. But I think this kind of film will encourage a lot of people to do co-production and try to find stories that are interesting for export. And seeing their film travel and maybe create this kind of pride and sense of ownership back home so people will embrace film.
G: Well, you've been sort of on a bit of a victory tour with the film, I think—
G: What, in particular, has been most memorable about taking the film around?
HA-M: I don't know: everywhere it's been, like, really warm reception, and it's amazing just to be here, and talk to you. I think that having the nomination coming from Saudi Arabia was very touching. I feel it won't ever happen (laughs), but it is like this kind of embracing that is like this celebration for art and acknowledgement for art. And I was touched when the announcement happened.
G: Yeah. That's a big deal!
G: Well, it's been wonderful to talk to you. Thank you so much.
HA-M: Aww. Thank you so much for your time.
G: Best of luck with the film.
HA-M: Aw, thank you so much.