Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s contribution to Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales premieres at the Venice Film Festival. Stephen Short talks to the pioneering filmmaker and star
Saudi director Haifaa AlMansour’s contribution to
Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales
It’s Night-time In 1980s Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Glittery and glamorous heels climb out of cars. Women shrouded in traditional black abayas make their way into a wedding hall, where they reveal what’s underneath: dazzling dresses and wild hair. Their true selves set free, unseen by the male gaze. There are strict segregation rules in Saudi weddings. All eyes and ears are on the wedding singer; until the electricity cuts out suddenly. “This is the worst wedding singer ever,” guests mutter, condescendingly. Will the young daughter manage to save her mother’s dignity?
The Wedding Singer’s Daughter, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, is the 16th commission from the Miu Miu Women’s Tales short-film series, which each year premieres at the Venice Film Festival in September. The works invite contemporary and original female directors to investigate vanity and femininity in the 21st century.
Previous directors have included, most recently, Dakota Fanning, Celia Rowlson-Hall, and the likes of Chloë Sevigny. But in choosing Haifaa Al-Mansour for this iteration, Miuccia Prada, the founder of Miu Miu, has taken on the most eyeopening, and potentially controversial, game-changer of all.
A little context first. Until recent times, to be a Saudi female was to be almost an invisible force in one of the world’s most repressive and segregated societies. Every girl and woman – irrespective of age or profession – is overseen by a male guardian who can prevent her from travelling overseas and even receiving medical treatment. It’s an offence for any woman to be seeing talking to a boy or man who isn’t her relative. Further, men and women are not even meant to coexist in the public sphere.
For those to whom the Saudi kingdom remains unbeknownst, women were only granted the right to drive on June 23 this year, 2018. That follows gradual loosening of previous rules under King Abdullah, who died in 2015, and more specifically the illustrious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he’s known, who has initiated a project to remake the country by 2030, harnessing the sun’s power and not just oil to keep Saudi lights on. Since his arrival, women have started working in shops, and even going to the cinema, which was formerly banned.
But a Saudi woman who goes to Starbucks in Riyadh, for example, will stand in a female queue, and must be wearing an abaya – a full-length robe-like dress. And then there’s the niqab, the face-covering veil, an extreme exaggeration of the entire attitude towards the feminine gender, which is worn by some, but not all, Saudi women.
Al-Mansour’s pedigree as Saudi Arabia’s only female film director of note is undoubted. She studied comparative literature at The American University in Cairo and completed a master’s degree in film studies at The University of Sydney. The success of her 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows influenced a new wave of Saudi filmmakers and made the issue of opening cinemas in the kingdom frontpage news.
Wadjda, Al-Mansour’s feature debut, is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a female director. The film, about a young girl’s efforts to buy a bicycle to ride against boys (sport was also banned for girls i n Saudi Arabia until recent times) received wide critical acclaim after its premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival and established Al-Mansour as an important talent emerging from the Arab world. She recently published a novelisation of the film titled The Green Bicycle for Penguin publishing group.
She’s also the director of this year’s much lauded Mary Shelley, staring Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, based on the life of the author of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Al-Mansour is the first artist from the Arabian Gulf region to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
“I want to continue making films. It’s hard to deal with societies which are very conservative,” she says, “but patience pays off. Especially with cinema, which in Saudi Arabia was illegal until recently.” The Saudi government has now greenlighted a new film, The Perfect Candidate, which Al-Mansour can shoot in her native Saudi, supported by the new national Saudi Film Council. The comedydrama follows a young female physician who dreams of participating i n male-dominated municipal elections. “I have backing and funding from the government now that cinema is legal again, so I will not be hiding in a van, and I will be able to shoot in the streets, more relaxed, more engaged with the art.”
“I’m really proud of Miu Miu doing all those Women’s Tales,” says Al-Mansour. “It’s often hard for women to tell their stories, especially in filmmaking, an industry so much controlled by men, as financiers, producers or directors. Now women are moving forward, having a safe working
environment. My goal is not to condemn someone but to try to make beautiful films. Women also need to support each other front and back of the camera to create a solidarity and power. We can’t move alone. We have to focus together.”
To hammer home the point about female empowerment and hope, Al-Mansour cast Los Angeles–based Saudi singer Rotana Tarabzouni in the role of the wedding singer. Tarabzouni grew up in the Eastern Province city of Dhahran, and gave up the chance to be an oil executive in her father’s firm to start a pop career in LA. Among her projects, she produced a music video that went viral to draw attention to the fight for Saudi women’s rights on the eve of their being allowed to drive.
She embodies what the film, and contemporary Saudi Arabia, represent. Tarabzouni, more than almost any young Saudi woman, sees life there from both inside and out. “I was working at an oil company in Saudi, and at 21 decided that I wanted to move to the United States to be a singer. I wasn’t in touch with my rights, but I wanted to use music as a way to interact and discover questions inside of me. I had always dreamed of being a singer but I didn’t see anyone who looked like me pursuing a career. I shut it out as something impossible, but it was still in my heart. It took me 22 years to realise that.”
And now, through sheer persistence, music has made her a role model to a group of young women the world over. “I feel like I truly represent the growing pains of Saudi Arabia. And I have lived on both sides of it. I think of myself and women of my generation as the necessary and exciting growing pains of any society going through a reform and artistic renaissance.”
Al-Mansour feels that the wedding is the best encapsulation of Saudi Arabia. “I always felt a wedding is like the actual mirror of society i n Saudi Arabia. We are always segregated and our societies are fragmented. People don’t really get together so much in Saudi Arabia apart from weddings, schools, et cetera. In a society where music is illegal and music is forbidden, I wanted capture that tenderness, and that kind of tension between the bigger society and people who entertain, who are meant to bring joy and be celebrated, but that doesn’t happen so much in Saudi Arabia.”
For Al-Mansour the salvation in the film is not Tarabzouni the singer, but her daughter. “The little girl is the future. I wrote this script as part of a bigger script. In the bigger one, she runs for elections and tries to escape her past, and doesn’t want to do anything with music. And I think her strength comes from understanding what it means to be an outsider. I think the future belongs to outsiders. People from outside the system. Being out of it creates something special. And they know how to dress: Miu Miu, of course.”
“Women need to support each other front and back of the camera to create a solidarity and power . . . We have to focus together”– Haifaa Al-Mansour
CLOCKWISEFROM BELOW: HAIFAAALMANSOUR;A STILL FROM THE MOVIE; HAYLIE NIEMANNAS THE DAUGHTER