GIRL’S QUEST IN A LOW GEAR
A Saudi filmmaker breaks new ground with her wry, gentle tale, writes Michael Bodey
and becoming more tolerant and they are reconsidering a lot of the liberal arts,’’ she says.
She seems more confident of the future than others, who fear religious conservatives will wrest back control of the country when the sixth king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah, dies. He has struggled with health issues, including a heart attack, since 2010 and has retreated from public view. He is 88.
Her creative growth has benefited from what she sees in Saudi terms (if not in Western eyes) is a relatively liberal regime. Al-Mansour studied in Cairo and made a number of shorts and a documentary before taking a masters degree in film studies at the University of Sydney in 2008-09 — ‘‘ Or Sydney Uni, as you Australians say,’’ she says with a smile.
Her previous bachelor’s degree in literature gave her insights to characters and plot but she required more filmmaking knowledge across both theory and practice as she prepared to make her first feature.
Her first draft of Wadjda developed as part of her Sydney degree in a screenwriting workshop with Blue Murder writer Ian David. He also wrote her first recommendation to the independent film hothouse, the Sundance Writers’ Lab in the US. ‘‘ And I’m an alumni now!’’ she says.
As she tackled film theory, al-Mansour’s previously mainstream film diet exploded. Jafar Panahi’s Iranian films, particularly Offside, which was ‘‘ young and colourful but simple and projected a lot about Iranian society’’, spoke to her.
‘‘ I felt it was something I could use in my own movies,’’ she says. The Dardenne brothers’ 1999 Palme d’Or winner Rosetta showed her how to portray a female protagonist with the dignity to change her situation and the dialogue in films by the Coen brothers inspired her.
The lack of any Saudi film industry remains a distraction, though. She says she hopes to continue making films but will always require co-production help from the West ( Wadjda was co-produced by German producers, Razor Film Produktion in conjunction with Rotana, the film production company of Saudi prince al-Waleed bin Talal).
The catch 22, obviously, is that the global industry remains reluctant to show films from Gulf countries because they have no history of screening them, let alone producing commercially successful films.
Yet the Gulf countries, including Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, have thriving local TV sectors. Egyptian cinema dominates the region.
‘‘[ In] the Gulf region, we don’t have a history of filmmaking before but now that situation is changing because people are interested,’’ alMansour says. ‘‘ Politically and economically the area is becoming more powerful, so people want to know more.’’
Unfortunately, some neighbours who do have competent film sectors thanks to their historical links with France, such as Tunisia and Morocco, may not be heading in the same direction culturally as Saudi Arabia.
From the distance of Bahrain, which is connected to Saudi Arabia via a causeway, alMansour believes her government ‘‘ is trying to introduce changes gradually, like giving women more rights and giving more space to politics and art’’.
‘‘ I feel Saudi Arabia is moving ahead in the right direction although the change is very slow. But places like Tunisia, it’s very sad — people are losing liberties they gained in the past,’’ she notes. ‘‘ It’s ironic, I feel we are moving in the right direction and becoming more liberal by the day, whereas other places with a more liberal history are becoming more conservative.’’
The practicalities of a woman filming in the Saudi capital Riyadh remain onerous, however, and tell a different story. While filming, alMansour remained behind her veil and, to work on some scenes, inside a customised van equipped with monitors and communication devices. The fact she was able to shoot the first feature filmed entirely in the country, however, was a sign of progress, she believes.
Haifaa al-Mansour has struck a perfect balance in Wadjda. Playing within the strictures of her nation she has produced a film that subtly criticises its mores.
Western eyes are agog at some of the social restrictions shown in her film, yet the director interweaves them within an ostensibly mild narrative that recalls Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
Al-Mansour explains she doesn’t want to ‘‘ force or clash because people will just shun it’’. ‘‘ I tried to maintain my voice as a filmmaker but I still respect the culture where I come from and work within that framework,’’ she says.
‘‘ It’s very important to introduce film in that way and build it organically within the culture. As an artist I don’t want to be like that person they don’t want to hear. I want to take people on journeys and entertain them.
‘‘ Of course, I want to say things about the society and my life as a woman and stuff like that,’’ she says, ‘‘ but I want to say it in a way that doesn’t offend people as much as engage them with dialogue back home.
‘‘ I’m reflecting the reality of the situation and creating a world that is very real and people can take from it what they want.’’
Saudi film director Haifaa al-Mansour
Waad Mohammed in