HEY! WE ALL HAD TO START SOMEWHERE: an interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi Arabian filmmaker and writer/director of Wadjda

This is the next post in a series of interviews with writers who have had their first films, web series, television assignment, etc. make it to the big or small or computer screen. It is an effort to find out what their journey was to their initial success.

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Next up: a very special interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi Arabian filmmaker and writer/director of Wadjda


al mansour use this oneHaifaa Al Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia (for her first feature, Wadjda, she had to direct some exterior scenes from inside a van). A graduate of the American University of Cairo and the University of Sydney, she has made three short films and the documentary Women Without Shadows, which won the Critics Award and The Golden Dagger at the Muscat Film Festival. Wadjda, a story about a young girl in Saudi Arabia who enters a Koran competition to get the money she needs to buy a bicycle, has been shown all over the world and has received numerous nominations and awards, including a BAFTA nomination. She has influenced a whole new group of Middle Eastern filmmakers and her work is both praised and pilloried in the Kingdom.
  1. What is the name of your first screenplay that was produced?
 The first film I ever made was a short called “Who?” about a serial killer in Saudi Arabia who dresses up in the full abbya and niqab (the traditional clothing that Saudi women wear to completely cover themselves).  It was a thriller, but also a commentary about the anonymity of women in Saudi culture and the dangers that come from half of the population concealing their public identity. 
  1. Can you tell us a bit about the journey as to how it came about?

I had been working for an oil company for several years and was frustrated by the glass ceiling I felt was keeping me from reaching my potential, so I started making films as a way to express myself and find my voice.  I sent my film off to a small festival in the UAE and was shocked when they accepted it and invited me to come to the festival! They were the ones that told me I was the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia.

  1. Tell me a little bit about the experience of having the project come to completion.

When I posted my first film online it created quite a buzz in Saudi Arabia, and it was really exciting to see the reaction from people who were so excited to see something that had been made locally.  We grow up seeing films made in other places- America, India, China- so I think it is special for Saudis to see themselves and their stories portrayed in film.  We don’t have cinemas, and our TV is not very personal (more like Mexican soap operas) so I think there is a real desire from audiences from the Kingdom to see real stories about where they come from.

  1. What was the hardest obstacle to overcome in achieving that first project?

Making a film in a country where cinema is illegal is quite a challenge! Having been involved in early film efforts in the Gulf region I learned a lot about what it would take to make a film from the Kingdom that would have the ability to travel outside of the region.  I knew I would have to look for international partners who could assist with both the physical infrastructure of the filmmaking process and the know-how to help me develop my film.  The hardest part of developing the film definitely came from the lack of a local film industry and all of the work that was necessary to build up the proper platform from which to develop the film


  1. What have you learned about the industry when it comes to being a writer?

You have to be open to criticism, advice and guidance.  Filmmaking is collaborative, and if you hear the same advice or criticism over and over again you should accept the fact that they may have a point. I worked hard to get into several international writing and script labs to develop my feature film script Wadjda. (Script Station, Berlin International Film Festival, Berlinale / RAWI Sundance Writer’s Lab, Jordan / Dubai Film Connection, Dubai International Film Festival / Atlanta Screenwriters Lab, Atlanta International Film Festival / Torino Film Lab, Italy).   I got a lot of great advice from a lot of different people and I think it made my writing that much stronger in the end.

  1. What are you working on now?

I have a few projects I’m working on at the moment. I am working with Gidden Media on directing A Storm in The Stars, based on the life of Mary Shelly, and am working to adapt Cara Hoffman’s novel Be Safe I Love You into a feature film.  I also hope to continue making as many movies as I can in Saudi Arabia.  It is such a ripe environment for drama, and there are so many untold stories yet to be told.  The interplay between tradition and modernity creates just the right amount of tension for great stories.

  1. What is your favorite movie or TV series?

I really look for films that are true to where they come from and try as much as possible to capture the spirit of the place they represent. Visually I am drawn to films that have a neo-realistic, almost documentary feel.  I like to feel as if I have found a window into a previously unknown world through a film.  In Saudi Arabia a lot of artists practice self-censorship, and try to play it safe, not knowing that making any type of art is putting out an opinion-an idea. Even the most basic art forms somehow talk about the world and a person’s search for a place within it.  If your only goal is solely entertainment, your work will still have a perspective, full of comments and opinions. Not only in Saudi Arabia but in the entire Gulf region you see that people are reluctant to form an individual opinion. These are tribal societies where individuality is vilified, where group-think is seen as a positive part of the culture.  So stepping out of that can be a painful, scary process, but ultimately extremely rewarding and beneficial to the society’s development.

  1. Where do you think the movie and television industry is heading?  What do you think its future is?

I think the digital world will certainly be a place where people will increasingly come together to tell their stories. There is a whole new generation of young people making films in Saudi Arabia, particularly younger kids putting videos and clips online.  I think the most interesting ones are those in which the filmmakers talk about their own lives and issues, and the world they live in. Some of the shows are getting really popular, and they are really funny!  It makes me really optimistic about the future of the country. We need to continue to nurture these voices and provide platforms for them to tell their stories.

  1. What parting advice do you have for writers?

Don’t be precious about your work.  If enough people tell you that there is a problem with your script, there is probably a problem with your script.

  1. What do you do when you’re not writing?  What do you do to get away from the industry?

I spend time with my kids! I love to immerse myself in their world and forget about all of the things I have to do for work.  I also like visiting my family in Saudi Arabia.  It can be a frustrating place sometimes, but it always inspires me to write something new!

al mansour

  1. Tell us something about yourself that many people may not know.

I didn’t really learn English until college! I went to public school in Saudi and I had a few lessons in English, but went to Egypt to study at the American University in Cairo and was totally lost for the first year.



And check out the other interviews in the series:

Chad Crawford Kinkle http://ow.ly/HXLq0

Mikey Levy http://ow.ly/HA9Xm

Hilliard Guess http://ow.ly/HcOmr

Amir Ohebsion http://ow.ly/H8aPq

Donald McKinney http://ow.ly/GvPfn

Michelle Ehlen http://ow.ly/GvPr1


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