There aren’t many filmmakers who have overcome as much or impacted their local film industries as significantly as Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour. Against all odds, in a country the World Economic forum ranked 141 out of 144 for gender parity, where most women aren’t allowed to drive or even make important decisions alone, Mansour became her country’s first and only female filmmaker.
The cultural barriers of a deeply conservative country couldn’t hold her back: When she wanted to make an inspiring movie about one girl’s dream to ride a bicycle—Wadjda—she was prepared to film it surreptitiously from the back of a van in order to avoid public outrage. When she received death threats after making movies about female empowerment, she didn’t buckle because she had an unquenchable thirst to tell the stories that matter to her. Now, as part of a radical political turnaround she has helped bring about, Mansour is being tasked by Saudi Arabia’s new regime to shape the country’s artistic and cultural policies.
Given her remarkable journey, you’d think Mansour might be angry with the challenges that still exist in her homeland or the ignorance she has come up against. She isn’t. She is hopeful.
“If you become consumed in anger it stops you from being productive” she says. “I want to make films. I want to move beyond that anger. I hope that if we are able to show people versions of themselves on screen and they’re able to laugh or listen to music, then mentalities will change. That is more effective in the long run than becoming angry. That will bring about deeper change in society.”
Mansour now calls Los Angeles home and has come a long way from the small town she grew up in outside of Riyadh in the 1970s and ’80s. One of 12 children, her parents didn’t speak English. “Listening to music was considered a radical move, and evil by some, but my father encouraged it,” she recalls. Mansour and her family soon realized that a traditional upbringing wouldn’t be for her. She had a fire inside her that needed to be stoked. She initially travelled to Egypt to study and then attended film school in Australia.
On her travels, things most of us take for granted proved magical. “Just being able to go outside at will and do normal everyday things was wonderful. It’s amazing to be in an environment where you can freely engage with your art.”
Released in 2005, her first film was a little known but groundbreaking 45-minute documentary called Women Without Shadows. The film, which uncovers the lack of agency afforded women in Saudi society, revealed the themes that now dominate the director’s work. Nine years later, despite myriad practical challenges, she completed Wadjda, which became Saudi Arabia’s first ever Oscar entry and went on to score a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
In Saudi Arabia, the film represented a watershed moment, not only because of its subject, but also because it was the first ever feature shot entirely in the Kingdom. Its breakout international success led to her first English-language movie, the biopic Mary Shelley starring Elle Fanning, which debuted last year at the Toronto Film Festival. Al-Mansour is currently in post-production on Netflix-backed comedy-romance Nappily Ever After starring Sanaa Lathan. She returns to Saudi Arabia later this year to make The Perfect Candidate and is in development with LA animation hub ShadowMachine on Miss Camel, which addresses female empowerment.
Despite her recent US relocation, Mansour maintains a strong bond with her homeland. She feels the well-publicized reforms spearheaded by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud offer opportunity for women across the Kingdom. “This is a society which doesn’t like change, but Saudi Arabia is looked to in many ways in the Arabic world. It sets the tone in many ways. There’s a lot more to be done, but you have to start somewhere.”
Last month, the filmmaker’s arc from controversial rebel to cultural icon was solidified with her appointment by the Saudi government to the board of the General Authority for Culture, the country’s first committee on culture. This marks a significant statement from the country’s rulers and a remarkable achievement for al-Mansour. “I feel very honored to be a part of shaping the cultural landscape,” she says. “This is an important time for art and cinema. My passion is to make sure that Saudi filmmakers get seen and that we have international collaboration. We’re still shaping the project, but I want to foster national filmmaking so we can enrich the international industry. I don’t want to only see US movies in the new cinemas. It’s important to give nationals a voice. We’ll need to protect the national industry.”
Growing that industry is top of the agenda. There remains little in the way of film industry infrastructure or culture in Saudi Arabia, and especially not for women. “Training voices is the next big step; voices who can potentially travel. There are some female filmmakers who have made shorts. We see each other at festivals such as Dubai, but there’s no community as such. Having a place you can gather to watch a film is how communities of artists start.”
Will censorship hamper the industry’s organic growth, however? “I expect it to be like Dubai,” says Mansour. “You won’t be seeing Eyes Wide Shut, that’s for sure, but complaining about censorship isn’t productive. Iran currently has more stringent censorship than Saudi Arabia when it comes to available film and TV content, and yet we’ve seen superb cinema coming from Iran. Sometimes coming from a conservative place offers a different perspective. It is about understanding where you are and how you express your voice in that context.”
Mansour is part of a wave of successful women filmmakers from the region who have broken through despite highly challenging contexts. The likes of Nadine Labaki from Lebanon and Annemarie Jacir from Palestine are all well known on the international circuit now. There is still a ways to go before Saudi Arabia develops filmmaking communities of its own, but the green shoots of change are beginning to emerge.
“It’s too early to talk about waves of Saudi filmmakers, but for the first time women feel like their voices count for something,” she continues. “I just heard about a young filmmaker looking to make her movie through Kickstarter in Saudi Arabia. We’ll see more like that. Something is beginning.”