The piece below was originally written for Black Feminist, following an interview done in 2013 with Haifaa Al Mansour, the director of the ground-breaking film, 'Wadjda' – first film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.
I recently had the absolutely amazing opportunity to interview Haifaa Al Mansour, the writer-director of the film Wadjda, at the offices of Upbeat Productions in Covent Garden. I have to admit being nervous because, given the brilliance of the film – and especially the social and political context in which it was made – I was a bit in awe of the filmmaker. Yet, Al Mansour is as charming, open and genuine as her film. And thoughtful and deliberate. I am still in awe, but more comfortably so.
Since she is currently on a media junket to coincide with the international release of the film, I begin by asking how the film’s representations of Saudi Arabia might play globally. In particular, I ask whether she was concerned that certain aspects of the film might be used to confirm negative stereotypes about Saudi culture. While she acknowledges the risk, Al Mansoor reiterates her primary commitment to creating an authentic piece of cinema that represents her voice as filmmaker. There will always be those who misappropriate stories, but ultimately, she insists that this is a story of hope and she hopes that audiences will connect with it on that level.
Al Mansoor has previously spoken of the challenges of being a female director in a society where sexual segregation is quite strictly enforced – of having to keep a relatively low profile during casting and filming; of having to work from inside a van, screaming directions to actors. Yet, she believes that learning how to work within the system – and this includes being cognizant of local social and cultural sensibilities – is crucial to producing long-term change. “Saudi Arabia is a closed, tribal society. And I am quite sympathetic to the fact that people want to cling to what they know, what they have been taught for generations. So, you have to change the way people think… change has to come from the heart.” It may be a slow, up-hill climb but Al Mansour appears quite prepared to undertake it.
Indeed, she speaks quite passionately, and consistently, about the need for change. And the film makes no bones about the need for change in women’s lives in Saudi Arabia. But would she consider Wadjda an explicitly feminist film? “Yes, of course,” says Al Mansour, noting how she is inspired by the stories of women who push back and succeed against all odds. “This is a film about a young girl who struggles to achieve her dream. But maybe, next time, I will make a film about a boy.”
So I ask her about Abdullah, Wadjda’s endearing friend in the film. Al Mansour has mentioned previously that her niece was her inspiration in writing Wadjda’s character. But did she have someone in mind while writing Abdullah as well? Not really, she laughs, “but he represents what I would hope or want men to be like. Abdullah’s character is so charming because he is not scared of strong women. In fact, he actually admires and respects them. And wants to be around them. I think we need more Saudi men like that.”
I turn, therefore, to another male figure – Wadjda’s father, a smaller character but very intricately written. He is, on the one hand, very supportive and affectionate towards Wadjda, and appreciative and loving towards his wife. Yet, he leaves her for a second marriage because Wadjda’s mother cannot bear him a son. “I did not want to only show men as bad and women as good,” notes Al Mansour. “I wanted to show how both men and women have to make certain decisions because of the various pressures they are under.”
This sensitivity and thoughtfulness of Al Mansour as filmmaker is evident throughout the film as it touches upon numerous complex issues with skilled nuance and subtlety. For instance, she makes constant reference to how female sexuality is controlled and disciplined through various means, from marriage to gossip-mongering and public shaming. I ask her about the film’s allusion to the construction of same-sex relations/play as taboo. Referring to the scene where the school principal calls out two girls by name, accusing them in a school assembly of having engaged in ‘sin’, Al Mansour says what she wanted to highlight was not just the demonization of same-sex relations but they way in which young women are demeaned and have their confidence wrecked by such public gestures.
Would she, then, consider exploring the issue of sexuality in greater depth in a future project? Probably not, she says. “It is not an issue I would feel really comfortable addressing.” Al Mansour acknowledges that she is still dealing with some of her internalized conservativism – her hesitance with sexuality being, perhaps, one lingering aspect. “You know, I still can’t wear a swimsuit. Maybe someday I will. But for now, I still can’t do it.”
Another issue the film hints at is that of migrant labor. Wadjda’s mother works at a school quite a distance from where they live. Since women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, they must employ drivers, many of whom are immigrants, often undocumented. This, says Al Mansour, creates a certain kind of power struggle between the male drivers and their female customers. Indeed, even as the film depicts this power play between Wadjda’s mother and her driver, it also recognizes the isolation and precariousness of migrant workers. The status of migrant labourer in Saudi Arabia needs to be attended to, says Al Mansour, with education and safeguards in place.
Despite these multiple themes invoked, let’s not forget that the film is, ultimately, about Wadjda – a spunky, can-do-will-do kid and her quest for a bike of her own. So, I end the interview where the film leaves her off – biking down her small neighbourhood roads, onto city streets, looking out beyond. Did Al Mansour imagine any specific dreams from Wadjda or for Saudi women, in general, when writing this scene? “Yes, absolutely! It took a long time for us to find this location. I wanted the scene to be a confined space opening on to something bigger, like the open desert. But I also wanted to convey a sense of danger. Because that is also what change is about, continuing in the face of danger.”
Trailer and clips here: