Haifa Al Mansour is widely known as the first female Saudi filmmaker and has become a role model for women throughout the region who have a desire to make films. Throughout her filmmaking carrier, Mansour has made numerous films drawing upon the heritage and traditions of her country. With the recent release of her film ‘Wadjda’, which has screened at the 69th Venice Film Festival and Dubai International Film Festival, she has garnered critical acclaim both locally and internationally. DFI’s editorial team had the chance to discuss filmmaking with Mansour during DTFF.
DFI: Can you describe your experience of watching films at the festival?
Al Mansour: Some films are better than others. It’s really fascinating for me to see young people using the medium of film to present themselves and to tell their stories because we are very vocal, poetry is big; people can speak about their feelings and how they see the world through words and lyrics. For them, to use a different medium and document their perspectives using film is totally new, and it’s fascinating. I also admire young people who tell stories about themselves and their worlds. We live in a very conservative place, where people sometimes cannot say things, and it’s very compelling to see filmmakers coming forward and presenting their stories.
DFI: Do you envision a day when people will embrace filmmaking in Saudi?
Al Mansour: I feel the rejection of cinema in Saudi Arabia is coming from the people. People in Saudi are very conservative, they’ve been raised this way and think cinema is corrupt, wrong, and is morally threatening to their existence. So this needs time to change and I feel that filmmakers have a large responsibility. It’s very important for filmmakers to try to create films that make people proud and embrace a new movement within cinema. I think that the way to bring cinema to Saudi is to talk to the people and show them that you want to make films that engage local audiences.
DFI: Is there a significant amount of filmmakers in Saudi wanting to document their stories?
Al Mansour: Yes, Saudi is very interesting because it’s very conservative and there is diversity, geography and subcultures contributing to the uniqueness of the nation. Saudi went through a lot of political changes in the last 30 years. We had very conservative ideologies and it created a certain atmosphere influencing a generation. People are emerging from that and dealing with the new world.
DFI: There have been attempts to establish film festivals in the Kingdom, however they have been cancelled at the last minute. It seems there are two different groups within Saudi?
Al Mansour: Yes…Cinema, women driving, there are issues that are always polarising in certain groups. We have the liberals and the conservatives and everyone has an issue to fight. Some issues are very polarised and cinema is one of them, but I think that cinema is moving a little bit away from that because it’s entertaining and because Saudis have an appreciation for it. They travel to Bahrain to watch films and it’s becoming less of a political issue.
DFI: Do you think that nontraditional mediums such as screening videos on the web can help grow the film culture within Saudi?
Al Mansour: Yes, definitely, any additional access Saudis will have to film is very important. The thing is, Saudis really love DVDs and sales are at their highest. People rent films, thus I feel it is really important to create compelling ones. If they opened theatres, I would love to see films from the country being screened. For me, opening theatres should support local voices at the very least. But this advancement in regional cinema will only happen if we make films that represent the people. I think it’s our responsibility as filmmakers. We shouldn’t be passive as a group of artists, we need to create that space for ourselves.
DFI: There’s been a lot of media surrounding you because of your film over the past year, have you felt any backlash from conservative groups?
Al Mansour: Sometimes, but I always try to maintain respect. I don’t try to be controversial just for the sake of being controversial. I always try to speak to them, and open a dialogue and always say ‘I respect you, I want to talk to you.’ They get upset, they write things on twitter, at the end of the day, when I speak, I speak like a local Saudi, so they feel that I’m like their daughter, I hope.
DFI: I understand you’re now living in Bahrain. Is that a benefit to you as a filmmaker?
Al Mansour: I live there only because of my husband, because of his job. For me as a filmmaker, I go to my mom’s house every weekend to get stories, to get inspired. Saudi is such a rich place.
DFI: One last question. Can we just ask for your all-time favourite film?
Al Mansour: I don’t have a favourite film but I love the Coen brothers, all their dialogue, they are very smart. I love Wes Anderson and Rosetta, Rosetta is one of the films where there’s a strong outsider female protagonist, and I love that.