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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.