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: Getty
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Stanley Johnson's Diary

The author on iguana burgers, cricket with Boris – and what Russia really knew about Brexit.

My week began with the annual Earl Spencer v Boris Johnson cricket match, held at Charles Spencer’s Althorp House in Northamptonshire. This is a truly wonderful event in a wonderful setting. Boris’s team has not yet notched up a victory, even though we once fielded Kevin Pietersen. This year, we actually came close to winning. The Johnson team made 127. Charles Spencer’s, with one over left, was on 123. It was a nail-biting finish, and they finally beat us with only two balls left to bowl.

Clapping for Britain

The day after the match, I was invited to lunch at the Travellers Club to meet Alden McLaughlin, the premier of the Cayman Islands, and other members of his government who were travelling with him in London. I discovered that his vision for the islands’ future extended far beyond the financial sector, central though that is. He was, for example, proud that the Cayman Islands – like other UK overseas territories – contribute enormously to the UK’s biological diversity.

“The blue iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands,” McLaughlin explained, “and it is one of the great environmental success stories of our time. It has been brought back from the brink of extinction.” If the blue iguana is on the way to recovery, it seems that the green iguana is superabundant. “We must have a million of them,” he said. “They are getting everywhere. We are working on a strategy to deal with them.” I told him that I once had an iguana burger in Honduras. He shook his head. “We don’t eat iguanas in the Caymans.”

Premier McLaughlin was also able to offer a useful insight into Britain’s current Brexit-related tensions. In 1962, the Cayman Islands were forced to decide whether to stay with Jamaica, as Jamaica became independent, or to stick with Britain as a separate crown colony. “We decided by acclamation,” McLaughlin told me. “One side clapped loudest; the other side clapped longest. The loudest side won. We stayed with Britain.” Like the latest Johnson-Spencer cricket match, it was a close-run thing.

Light touch

Last week, we went to the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and, in the course of an inspiring evening, heard Igor Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a haunting version of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. There were mutterings afterwards that he shouldn’t have chosen Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his encore, but if Levit meant this as a political statement – and he probably did – it was done with the lightest of touches. He doesn’t paint his message in huge capital letters on the side of a bus.

An open goal

My sister, Hilary, who emigrated to Australia in 1969, has been visiting. We spent two days on Exmoor in the middle of the week, on the family farm where we grew up, before coming back to London for the launch of my 25th book and tenth novel. Kompromat is a satirical political thriller that aims to recount the real story behind both the election of Donald Trump as US president and the pro-Brexit vote in last year’s referendum. There is a quotation from the former London mayor Ken Livingstone on the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, maybe it’s true.”

In interviews, I have been asked whether I really believe that the Russians might have been behind both Trump’s victory and Brexit. My response is simple. In the US, the idea of Russian interference in the election is being taken very seriously. Over here, we don’t seem to be bothered. I asked myself, when I started writing Kompromat in February, why wouldn’t the Russians have taken a shot at an open goal?

My fictional British prime minister, Jeremy Hartley, is a deeply patriotic man, convinced that the only way to take Britain out of the EU is to call a referendum – with a little help from his “friends”. But I don’t want to give too much away. Channel 4 has bought the rights and will be programming six half-hour episodes.

All in the family

Hilary and I went to Wimbledon for the ladies’ final as the guests of her old friend David Spearing. Usually referred to by tennis addicts as “the man in the black hat”, he first became a Wimbledon steward in 1974 and, even though he has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 50 years, he never misses a season. As the longest-serving steward, he gets to sit (wearing his famous hat) in the “family box” at Wimbledon, the one where close relatives of the players are invariably placed.

We met Spearing in the officials’ buttery during one of the intervals (Venus Williams had just been walloped by Garbiñe Muguruza). Later, as he walked us back to our seats, people kept stopping to ask him for a selfie. “I’ve been on duty in the ‘family box’ for 20 years,” he explained. “They all know me, from the TV or in person, seeing me sitting there hour after hour. The first time Andy Murray won the championship, he climbed up into the box to hug his girlfriend. I noticed he had missed his mother, who was sitting over to the side. ‘Don’t forget about Mum, Andy,’ I told him!” 

Stanley Johnson’s novel “Kompromat” is published  by Oneworld

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder