ABOUT FACE

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

Prestige (Malaysia) - - Contents -

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

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