Selves set free: Saudi film director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Wedding Singer’s Daughter delivers a game-changing message for Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series.
Saudi film director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Wedding Singer’s Daughter delivers a game-changing message for Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series
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 are 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 suddenly cuts out. “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 shortfilm series, which each year premieres at the Venice Film Festival in September. The works invite contemporary female directors to investigate vanity and femininity in the 21st century; previous directors have included Dakota Fanning, Celia Rowlson-Hall and Chloë Sevigny.
Al-Mansour felt a wedding was the best encapsulation of Saudi Arabia today. “I always felt a wedding is like the actual mirror of society in Saudi Arabia,” she explains. “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 forbidden, I wanted to capture that tenderness, and that kind of tension between the bigger society and people who entertain — those who are meant to bring joy and be celebrated … but that doesn’t happen so much in Saudi Arabia.”
Known as the country’s only female film director, the success of Al-Mansour’s 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows influenced a new generation of filmmakers. Her inaugural feature, Wadjda, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012, is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a female director. She also directed this year’s Mary Shelley, with Elle Fanning playing the lead role of the author. Al-Mansour is also the first artist from the Persian Gulf region to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Al-Mansour’s game-changing career has mirrored the fortunes of Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been overseeing new freedoms — women can now drive (as of June this year), visit the cinema and work in shops. But Saudi women must still dress in abayas — full-length robes — and many but not all wear the niqab (facecovering veil).
“I want to continue making films,” says Al-Mansour. “It’s hard to deal with societies that are very conservative, but patience pays off — especially with cinema, which in Saudi Arabia was illegal until recently.” The Saudi government has given the go-ahead for her new film, The Perfect Candidate, to be shot in the country, with the backing of the new national Saudi Film Council. It’s a huge victory for the director. “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.”
To substantiate the point about the growing narrative of feminine power, Al-Mansour cast Los Angeles-based Saudi pop singer Rotana Tarabzouni, a role model to women world over, as the wedding singer in The
Wedding Singer’s Daughter. “I feel like I truly represent the growing pains of Saudi Arabia,” says Tarabzouni. “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.”
“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 and 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 at the front and back of the camera to create solidarity and power. We can’t move alone. We have to focus together.”
I want to continue making films, It’s hard to deal with societies that are very conservative, but patience pays off – especially with cinema, which in Saudi Arabia was illegal until recently.” Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi film director
Al-Mansour felt a wedding was the best encapsulation of Saudi Arabia today.
Top: Haifaa Al-Mansour. Above: Miu Miu’s latest Women’s Tales goes inside a Saudi wedding.
A model in Miu Miu’s campaign.
it’s very important for women to tell their stories.