When it comes to considering Haifaa Al Mansour, much is made of the title “first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia”, and while that designation is accurate, it doesn’t speak to the fullness of this passionate, collaborative, inspired writer/director/producer.
She’s come a long way from the days during which she filmed her debut feature, the award-winning Wadjda, while hiding in the back of a van. Her country has come a long way, too, in no small part through her input on the Saudi Film Commission. Her story is fascinating, both as a person and as a filmmaker. She’s also utterly winning in person, someone who actively listens as much as she speaks, and is always seeking to understand those around her, whether they agree with her or not. All those qualities coalesce into a fine, and very talented cinematic artist. We spoke to Haifaa about her life and career for AWFJ’s August Spotlight.
Haifaa was born the 8th of 12 children into a very non-traditional Saudi family. Her mother stayed home with her and her siblings, but was a prolific and talented singer who didn’t follow traditional customs for women in the country. Her father was a renowned poet who allowed his children to watch films, bringing in Jackie Chan and Bollywood movies for the family to watch in their remote small town. She says she got her rebellious streak from her parents. Asked how they influenced Haifaa as a filmmaker, she had a quick answer. “The defiance.”
“My parents were not typical Saudis. They empowered us, especially the girls in the family, to pursue dreams, and never told us, ‘you cannot do it because you’re a woman’. They taught me how to be myself, in spite of peer pressure. I grew up in Saudi Arabia when it was very conservative, and everything was about women not having a voice, and covering up and all that, but my mom never did it. She certainly had a voice. My father certainly heard it. She had her opinions about customs. She never covered her hair. She never followed the traditional path, but everybody was inspired by her and wanted her as a woman to follow. She loved to sing, and she would sing at family gatherings and enjoy who she was. I think I learned from that to be true to who I am, and not to only be something or do something because everybody else is. My sisters are the same. My oldest sister was one of the few Saudi cardiologist until she left medicine to be an artist.”
Music was also a major part of Haifaa’s life, something that was not seen as proper or acceptable by many in her country. At school, if she said she listened to music, those around her would tell her she was going to hell. “I felt like an outsider.” This feeling of being both an outsider and invisible formed her perspective as an artist and filmmaker.
A GLOBAL EDUCATION LEADS TO FILM
Haifaa’s parents encouraged all their children to get an education, so she enrolled for a year in a Saudi college, but, as she put it, “I felt my world was getting very small, so I went to Cairo for 10 days, and told my parents I wasn’t coming back.” She attended The American University in Cairo, then took a job with an oil company. It was there she began feeling truly invisible as a Saudi woman. At that very low point in her life, she decided to make a film about happier times with her siblings, which got accepted to a local competition, confirming the whispers of her inner calling to work in film.
She met her husband, a diplomat at the US Embassy, which led her to studying for a masters degree in Film Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia, where they had moved for a new diplomatic posting. One of the three documentary shorts she created, The Only Way Out, won prizes in the UAE and The Netherlands, and she followed that with Women Without Shadows, a short about the hidden lives of Arab women. It played in 17 international festivals. As part of earning her degree in Sydney, Haifaa began writing the script that would later become her first feature film, Wadjda, about a young Saudi girl who wants a bike and the freedom to ride it. She had determined that her voice as a Saudi filmmaker would speak to the inner power, beauty and strength of women, and the importance of their individual independence. For that, Wadjda was the perfect vehicle. It took years to work the script into its final draft. It was a Sundance Writer’s Lab in Georgia that taught her an important lesson about being open. At the time, she was very attached to a storyline in Wadjda, where the lead character’s mother died.
“I was very militant about it. I felt women in Saudi had suffered a lot and that the mother absolutely had to die. I was very attached to that. Then I went to Abu Dhabi to a pitch competition, where you could win $100,000 overnight. I reconsidered the third act based on the notes I’d been given in Georgia, and came up with it at 4am. I told my husband, ‘I’m going to pitch a different movie.’ I always tell young filmmakers to be open. It doesn’t mean you change your vision, you always have what you want to say, but be open to advice from people, and collaborate, because you need that guidance.”
THE SAUDI SPARK
Wadjda premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, and it was the first full length feature entirely filmed in Saudi Arabia. The film was met with great critical acclaim around the world, and selected by the country as their entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, the first time Saudi Arabia had submitted a film to the Oscars. During the time Haifaa filmed Wadjda inside the country, women were not supposed to work outside the home, and it was discouraged for women to be in close proximity with men, especially as their boss.
Haifaa spent much of the time during production filming hidden from view, with a walkie-talkie, from inside a van. Only seven years later, she released her fourth film, another filmed in Saudi Arabia, called The Perfect Candidate. This too was centered on a female protagonist, a doctor who decides to run for office. By this time, much had changed. She was free to work in the open and found more autonomy. It was the first film to be supported by the new national Saudi Film Council, and it too was greeted with critical acclaim.
In between her first and fourth features, Haifaa directed Mary Shelley, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, and Nappily Ever After, a book adaptation, starring Sanaa Lathan, in 2018. In 2019, she was announced as part of the inaugural class of ReFrame Rise directors, a program created in partnership between Women in Film: LA and Sundance to help accelerate the careers of mid-career female filmmakers. She began working on the small screen, directing on projects like The Society, Motherland: Fort Salem, The Good Lord Bird, The L Word: Generation Q, The Wilds, and Archive 81.
When asked how she grew from directing Mary Shelley and through episodic television, she had this to say:
“Mary Shelley was my second feature film, so there was a lot of room for learning. I had a Western crew, which I wasn’t used to, and I was on a bigger set. It was very early in my career as a director, Nappily Ever After was my third film, and I felt more comfortable, more in command on a lot of things. Now I feel I’m way more experienced after doing tons of TV. I think TV is the best place to learn and master your craft. I feel a lot more confident in my abilities to achieve what I want with efficiency and ease. I have the tools now to guide everybody towards wherever I need to go. And I feel like going through this grinding wheel of TV really honed my skills, and made me much more in command of my craft. The schedule is so tight, you don’t want to make the wrong decision, so it made me really work hard to learn how to make decisions very quickly, how to prepare for a scene, how to break scenes, and how to come up with a very effective shot list that can tell the story in an elegant but also clear and concise way.”
On how directing for feature films informs work on the small screen, she said, “In a lot of episodic, I become almost like an executing tool for other people’s vision. I come there and I make things happen, but I feel like having that feature film background gives me that something special. I make my episodes mine, even if they have to fit within 9 or 10 episodes. You cultivate that as a feature film director, because you have to find your voice.”
TELLING NEW TALES
Most recently, Haifaa directed an episode on the upcoming series Tales of the Walking Dead starring Anthony Edwards. The new show airs in August. Currently, Haifaa is in New Orleans filming an episode of Anne Rice’s Mayfair Witches series. She’s producing her own projects, including a documentary on female illustrator and cartoonist Shawn Kerri, one of the few female contributors to CARtoons Magazine who was also part of the early punk scene, creating iconic images used by The Germs and the Circle Jerks. There’s an animated feature in Haifaa’s future as well, Miss Camel, with a story of female empowerment about a Saudi teen who, while trying to avoid her arranged marriage, discovers she can talk to animals. For Haifaa, centering on strong women feels essential to her art as director, producer, and writer.
“I want to send a message to women to believe in themselves, but also to work hard. That may unfair to say, but the truth is change for us can only happen with hard work. Hopefully, it’s not going to be as hard for our daughters and the next generation, but we really need to work hard and educate ourselves and move forward. There will be a lot of obstacles, and people who will not take us seriously, but that shouldn’t take us out of our focus and the goals we want to achieve. It’s also incredibly important for women to encourage each other, and to create a sisterhood.”
Haifaa carries that passion about female empowerment and freedom into her work as a board member of the Saudi Film Commission. She has already seen really big changes in her country of origin. Since the filming of Wadjda, women in Saudi Arabia are allowed to drive, join the military, and live independently without a male guardian. In 2022, the first woman Deputy Secretary-General of the Saudi Cabinet was appointed. The 35-year ban on cinemas was lifted in 2017. Many initiatives have been undertaken by the government in the last few years, including a large influx of funds dedicated to building a robust film industry in the country. Haifaa has thoughts on all of this:
“I think art is an amazing way to open up a country like Saudi Arabia, which is conservative and has been so long cut off from the rest of the world. It’s key to creating a nation that has a heart, has empathy, and is more of a global player. Art is also the only way to move towards gender equality, to move towards more liberated social liberties. I’m really excited about what’s happened in Saudi Arabia. I’m still part of the film commission, and on the board, and I strive to give young Saudi men and women, and women especially, the chance to have their voices heard. I want to encourage local filmmakers, whether it’s through funding or bringing mentors in or creating labs like Sundance Film Independent, so they find themselves empowered, and trained to tell their story.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Haifaa Al Mansour has a vision and an aesthetic as a filmmaker, to be sure, and she’s bringing it to screens big and small. That’s important, but even more important is the impact she’s having on women around the world. She wants to be inspiring, and she has already proven herself to be as such. Haifaa Al Mansour is an advocate who stands up for women. She has a unique and passionate voice, and we are all lucky she chose to share it with us. — Leslie Combemale