Haifa al-Mansour: "In Saudi Arabia, any woman voicing her opinion will be seen as controversial"

Haifa al-Mansour, the first woman ever to direct a feature film in Saudi Arabia, talks to Steve Yates about how her film <em>Wadjda</em> came together.

“I was in the van with a monitor and a walkie-talkie. So I screamed from the van. They heard my voice, my voice was inhabiting the set, but I wasn’t physically allowed to be there,” says Haifa al-Mansour about the making of Wadjda, a piece of cinema vérité which swept through last year’s festival circuit and opens in the UK on Friday. The reason large chunks of the film were directed by two-way? It was made in Riyadh and Haifa al-Mansour is a woman, the first to ever direct a feature film in Saudi Arabia.

“It was really frustrating, because I was confined in this space, I cannot go out because the country is segregated between men and women,” she says, sipping at a latte in a Soho hotel. “But it also made me work harder because it was very important for me to find the heart of the scene and tell the actors, ‘If you miss this, miss that, it’s OK – but don’t miss this!’ So if you give them the heart of it they feel more empowered and know what the scene means.”

Wadjda is a women’s picture in more than just its writer/director. It tells the story of the eponymous 10-year-old schoolgirl, whose vivacity and independence are at odds with the restricted future Saudi society has in mind for her gender. Her mother, played by leading TV actress Reem Abdullah, has already resigned herself to her lot and her chief concern is now dissuading her husband from taking a second wife.

Wadjda’s heart is set on the bicycle she needs to race against her best friend – and, he hopes, future husband – Abdullah. But Mum won’t stump up – bikes aren’t for girls – so Wadjda develops her entrepreneurial streak, before deciding that the simplest way to the money would be via the prize on offer at her strict school for the best Koran recitation. And so she affects piety and abandons her regular computer games for one with "Learn The Koran The Easy Way" emblazoned on the box.

Wadjda can be seen alongside Offside and the acclaimed Persepolis as part of a line of powerful films from the Gulf that use girls as protagonists to shine a light on ultra-orthodox Islam’s culture of discrimination. The bike isn’t just a nod to the Italian neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves. “It’s also about acceleration and freedom and mobility,” says Haifa.

And yet despite the clear political intent at its core, Wadjda is a very human film. There be no monsters here. The men, principally Wadjda’s father and the family’s unhelpful driver, are unlovable rather than brutish and perhaps the least sympathetic character, the school’s ultra-religious principal, is a woman. They are, however, all highly believable.

It’s a lesson that came slowly to Haifa. “[The first draft] was very Arabic, political – I’m going to have a statement and I’m going to make people say exactly what I want. I was really happy with my script. Then I went and saw a film and it was almost like an essay and I didn’t feel any sympathy, nothing. And I felt really bad, it was exactly like my script. It was an eye-opener, so I went and changed my script, tried to inject life and take all the characters and bring in my world when I grew up, my experiences, and be honest.”

Although Haifa says there’s a lot of herself in Wadjda, she used one of her nieces (“such a great sense of humour, so full of life”) as the blueprint. But 12-year-old Waad Mohammad makes the mischievous, twinkly-eyed role her own.

The first-time actress wasn’t easy to find. Saudi Arabia has a negligible film industry – its cinemas were closed during the Islamic resurgence of the 80s – and no casting agencies worthy of the name. So Haifa used word of mouth and waited for the amateurs to roll up.

“Waad came in with jeans and trainers, listening to Justin Bieber,” she recalls. “And then she had this amazing voice. And she sang Justin Bieber, she knows the words by heart even though she doesn’t understand them. The first week she just learned how to stand by her mark and then she blossomed. She naturally has it.”

Just as Waad Mohammad is an unorthodox star, Haifa, 38, could scarcely be further from the alpha image of the stereotypical film director. Soft-spoken and standing just a few inches over five feet, she admits she struggled when she first left her remote Saudi home to study English at the American University in Cairo: “It was a disaster. It was direct interaction with the rest of the world and I come from a very shy culture.”

She’s one of 12 children born to Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, who used endless movies on VHS to keep his huge brood entertained. Hollywood and Jackie Chan were favourites – not obvious sources of inspiration for this distinctly realist director, but they instilled in her the value of a happy ending. Despite her seemingly hopeless struggle for self-definition, Wadjda is permitted to finish on the upbeat: music swells, the smile shines brighter than ever and the camera pulls back to show her doing what she most craves.

“I wasn’t trying to [wash Saudi’s dirty laundry], I was trying to put a human face on the culture. I wanted to show human resilience. Saudi’s a harsh place and I didn’t want to make a horrific film as people might have expected. I wanted to make an uplifting happy film about embracing hope. I am always respectful of the culture, I work within the framework. I wasn’t angry making the film.”

Wadjda is her first feature, but not her first film. There have been a few shorts and the 2006 documentary Women Without Shadows about females in the Gulf who don’t wear the orthodox full body cloak. Inevitably, despite the warmth and humour that infuse her art, she’s had her share of death threats from conservatives who feel her very existence threatens the culture.

She says, “I want to do stories about embracing life and hope and empowering girls, it’s very dear to me to make things like this. But the way I do it is very soft. I try to avoid being controversial, but in Saudi you can’t avoid it. Any woman voicing her opinion will be seen as controversial.”

Wadjda is in cinemas in the UK on Friday 19 July. The trailer can be viewed here

Waad Mohammad as the title role in "Wadjda".
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The top children’s TV show conspiracy theories

From randy Postman Pat to white supremacist Smurfs, we present to you your childhood in tatters.

We can probably all agree that, these days, nothing is sacred. If you can (as a few very insistent YouTube videos have told me) pay to watch live snuff films on the dark web, there’s probably someone out there – in the thronging nest of perversions that is the internet – ready to take something special from your childhood (say, a favourite TV programme) and make it unclean.

Which is exactly what happened when an internet-spawned theory found history’s least sexual fictional character, Postman Pat, to be a stop motion sex monster. The theory goes that he has fathered a lot of children in the village school, many of whom have ginger hair; Pat is the only red head in Greendale.


Because humans are incapable of not picking at every innocent thing until it goes gangrenous, here are some other childhood-ruining fan theories.

Babar is a colonial stooge


Babar lording it over the colonies. Photo: Flickr/Vanessa

Could everyone’s favourite anthropomorphic French elephant be an apologist for centuries of Western brutality and conquest? Well, yes, obviously. According to the “Holy Hell Is Babar Problematic” theory, the fact that the titular character was born in Africa, raised and “civilised” in Paris, then sent back to Elephant Land to be king and teach all the other elephants how to be French, makes Babar about as suitable for children as a Ladybird introduction to eugenics and a Playmobil King Leopold.

For further proof that this theory isn’t “political correctness gone mad”, but actually political correctness gone quite sensible, just look at some of the (deeply un-OK) illustrations from the 1949 book Babar’s Picnic.

The Smurfs are white supremacists


A horrifying vision of ethnic uniformity. Photo: Getty

Or maybe “blue supremacists” would be more accurate. Either way, they’re racist. Possibly. It’s been pointed out that the Smurfs all wear pointy white hats. Apart from their leader, Papa Smurf (the ultimate patriarch..?), who wears a red one. Meaning these tiny munchkin thingies are (maybe, just maybe) sartorially influenced by none other than the Ku Klux Klan.

This seems tenuous at best, until you look at a few other factors in this theory brought to light by French political scientist Antoine Buéno. Buéno suggests that the dictatorial political structure of Smurf Village paired with some actually quite convincing racism (when Smurfs turn black, for example, they become barbaric and lose the power of speech), equals Nazism.

What’s more, the Smurfs’ main antagonist – a wizard called Gargamel – is not unlike an antisemitic caricature from Nazi propaganda magazine Der Stürmer. He’s dark haired, hook-nosed and obsessed with gold. Oh, and he has a cat called Azrael, which is the Hebrew name for the Angel of Death.


 

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And, in case you’re not already far enough down the “Smurfs are racist” rabbit hole, just look at Smurfette and her long, blonde hair. Aryan much?

SpongeBob SquarePants is a post-nuclear mutant


Forever running from haunting memories of radioactive atrocity. Photo: Flickr/Kooroshication

According to one fan theory, this Nickelodeon classic may have more in common with The Hills Have Eyes than we think. SpongeBob, a talking sponge who lives in an underwater pineapple with a meowing snail, may well be the product of nuclear testing.

In the Forties, the US detonated two nukes in an area of the Pacific called Bikini Atoll. SpongeBob lives somewhere called Bikini Bottom. Coincidence, or an especially dark analogy for the dangers of radiation and man’s lust for destruction? Hm.

Tom and Jerry is Nazi propaganda


Skipping merrily through the Third Reich. Photo: Flickr/momokacma

Either we’re so obsessed with Nazism that we look for it (and find it…) in literally everything, or the antics of a classic cat and mouse duo really do contain coded messages about the futility of the Allies’ war with the Third Reich.

If we’re going for the latter, let’s start with the characters’ names. Tom (Tommies were British soldiers) and Jerry (Jerries were German ones). Now remember, Tom is the bad guy. In every episode, he tries to kill Jerry by any means possible, but is foiled every single time, getting blown up by sticks of dynamite and flattened by falling anvils along the way.

Tom and Jerry first aired in 1940 – the same year as the Battle of Britain. So, if the reference to slang for Brits and Germans was unintentional, it was more than a little bit unfortunate. And, according to some albeit sketchy-looking corners of the internet, this was no accident at all but a message (in that Jerry constantly outwits Tom) about superior German intelligence.

Although this may seem like the least compelling of all of these dark fan theories, it would explain why I always had a gut feeling the painfully smug Jerry was the actual baddie.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.