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".
Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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