How Haifaa Al Mansour's career is a barometer of change in Saudi society

The filmmaker speaks about how cinema helped her find her voice and the transition she's witnessed in her home country at the Red Sea International Film Festival

Haifaa Al Mansour attends the screening of her film 'Wadjda' at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. Getty

When Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour shot her 2012 feature film Wadjda in Riyadh, she had to direct the outdoor scenes from inside a van.

The conservatism of the society meant she had to oversee the scene from a distance, observing through a monitor and conveying her instructions through a walkie-talkie. It was far from ideal, but Al Mansour was determined to finish the film; in the end, it became the first feature-length work to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.

A scene from 'Wadjda', directed by Haifaa Al Mansour. AP

“Society was more conservative at the time,” Al Mansour said during a talk at the Red Sea International Film Festival. “So I had to be in a van for the outdoor scenes. I couldn't really go out on the street.”

Despite the clandestine precautions, Al Mansour said cinema helped her find her voice as a Saudi woman. But she was also an instrumental force in helping the kingdom find its voice in cinema, especially on an international platform, and at a time when cinema was banned in her native country.

Now, as Saudi Arabia begins to take strides on the global cinemascape with its first film festival, Al Mansour is finally being officially commended for her contributions at home. The filmmaker was honoured on the opening day of Saudi Arabia's first film festival, where she gave a heartfelt speech about women and culture finally being a focal point in Saudi society.

“Cinema gave me my voice,” she said. “As a woman, I grew up in Saudi at a time when women and culture were not at the centre. Now we are at the centre. It is a new page, we will lead the country.”

As the country’s first female filmmaker, Al Mansour has a career graph that is a sharp reflection of the country’s developments in the past decade. “I am a result of this society, a result of the changes that happened to it,” she said.

While Wadjda, which tells the story of a quick-witted young girl who defies social bias in her attempt to buy a bicycle, was Al Mansour’s first feature, it followed a series of shorter works that aimed to pull back the curtain on Saudi society all the same.

Her 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows features a series of interviews that explore the role of women in Saudi society, and today is seen as a necessary documentation of a period in Saudi history that is rapidly fading.

From left, Bel Powley (Claire Clairmont), Elle Fanning (Mary Shelley), Tom Sturridge (Lord Byron) and Douglas Booth (Percy Bysshe Shelley) in 'Mary Shelley', which was directed by Haifaa Al Mansour. Photo: TIFF

After Wadjda, Al Mansour began finding success in the US, directing features including Mary Shelley, Nappily Ever After, and the forthcoming Netflix series Florida Man. The projects may have told stories that were a far reach from her background, but Al Mansour said she often found tethers within the narratives that tied to her own experiences.

In 2018, Al Mansour returned to Riyadh to film her second Saudi feature, The Perfect Candidate. It was at this time when she began noticing a cautious but palpable change beginning to take hold of the country, and found a growing “legitimacy to the female Saudi artist on the streets of Saudi Arabia”.

“Things completely changed when we filmed The Perfect Candidate,” she said. “We filmed in Riyadh, and I was outside. Every now and then, someone would approach us and tell us not to film in their neighbourhood, so we’d call the police and when the police came and saw we had all the necessary clearance and paperwork, they’d keep people from intruding.”

In Haifaa Al Mansour's 'The Perfect Candidate', Mila Alzahrani plays Maryam, a Saudi doctor whose decision to run for local office causes consternation in her community.

While Al Mansour is considered a trailblazer, she stresses that she is only one face of the country’s burgeoning film scene.

“There has been a growing representation of Saudi female filmmakers recently with directors such as Shahad Ameen and Hind Al Fahhad,” she said.

The filmmaker, however, said there needs to be a push for talents to take on more diverse roles.

“We need scriptwriters, cinematographers, audio professionals and so on. Cinema needs that diversity, and we still don’t have it.”

Updated: December 10th 2021, 6:34 PM