Interview: Haifaa Al-Mansour of Wadjda
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s new film, Wadjda, is the first movie in history to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, and it’s doubly amazing that the film is helmed by a woman in a country that’s segregated women from men for years in many ways. The film is about a feisty little girl (Waad Mohammed) that refuses to conform to the expectations imposed on her by her culture. But her biggest dream is to become the owner of a wondrous green bike she’s been eyeing for some time, even though society and her mother (Reem Abdullah) tell her that her virtue will be compromised if she were to do such a reckless thing.
Al-Mansour sat with us to discuss how it feels to break ground with her film, her favorite movies growing up, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Theives, documenting what it’s like to be a girl in Saudi Arabia, and more.
If 10-year-old Haifaa saw this film, with Wadjda acting like Saudi girls aren’t supposed to, how how would she react?
I would have loved her! The next day I would be wearing the same thing she does in the movie. I’d be a groupie! I used to watch a lot of films as a kid, so if I watched a film like that…I don’t know. I used to admire all of the stars my age. In Egyptian cinema there was a little girl called Fairouz. She was like Shirley Temple. I grew up watching a lot of Egyptian cinema, black and white films and stuff like this. I loved her. I wanted a dress like the one she had!
What are some of your favorite childhood movie memories?
I remember watching Snow White. It was amazing. We watched the movie on VHS. I don’t know if you remember VHS because you’re quite young…
I do remember VHS, unfortunately (laughs)
(laughs) Well, I grew up with tape. We’d rewind and fast forward the tape back and forth. They weren’t all good memories. My father or my oldest brother and sister used to go to the local Blockbuster and go, “Here! Here’s a movie.” They grabbed a movie and said it was very popular, so we put it on the TV and started watching it. It was The Evil Dead.
You saw The Evil Dead when you were a kid?!
Yeah (laughs). My siblings and I were all gathered in a corner, screaming. We were traumatized for a while. Those were amazing memories for me as a kid because I grew up in a small town. A small town in Saudi is really a small town. There’s nothing happening, no life unfolding. In films, people were fighting for their country, for love…there were these big concepts that you don’t get to exercise when you’re in a small town. It was amazing. I love the medium. It made me see a different world.
Was it atypical for girls your age to watch movies as much as you did?
My parents are very traditional–they don’t speak English or anything–but they would allow us to watch films, read magazines and these kind of things. We had all this access to film, all this access to TV, to books, to magazines. All the kids in my school were very conservative. A lot of ideologies against art started emerging. They told me, “How can you watch films? They’ll corrupt your soul!” A lot of them didn’t watch movies because it wasn’t part of the culture.
Is it frustrating for girls in Saudi Arabia to be physically segregated from men in public?
It depends on what age. I made a documentary before this film (Women Without Shadows) where I interview women in Saudi Arabia of all ages. Women older than me have this knowledge of the world. Before the segregation, they could go outside…the society was very primitive. It was a rural society–people were farmers and the women would contribute by selling stuff. They’re not that educated–they maybe don’t know how to read or write–but still, their viewpoint is mature. Women my age grew up with all these ideologies. There was the interpretation of Islam, the oil boom, and urbanization. People were leaving the small towns to go to the big cities for work. Schools were becoming more militant. They were very scared, and their ideas of the world were very naive. Then, I interviewed girls Wadjda’s age, which is where I got the inspiration for the film. They were very feisty and they just didn’t care. “Why can’t I go outside!?” They belonged to a different world.
You address a lot of complex cultural issues in the film, but it doesn’t feel like medicine. It just feels like a simple story.
That’s good! (laughs) I tried not to be judgmental. I detached myself and put in situations that I found interesting. I found them interesting for a purpose. I put them there hoping that people would see them in the same way I do. I wasn’t trying to interfere. I just wanted to document life through a clear lens so that the audience can feel what it’s like to be a Saudi woman without telling them, “This is right, this is wrong.” I’m sure my opinion is there in the way I put the film together, but not in the way that I’m totally there. I tried to have a documentary style and detach myself. It’s a realist style, like Bicycle Theives.
That’s one of my favorite films.
I love that movie. The fact that it’s filming away from the studio and documenting life. It’s fresh after the war, people are rebuilding the country.
So De Sica’s film was a main influence on Wadjda?
Yes. It’s also mixed with Iranian cinema. It’s a school I felt I could adopt, to use the limited space as an artist and project more about the culture. I love Jafar Panahi and his film Offside. It projects a lot about how women are perceived in Iranian culture.
Where did you come up with the idea for the shot of the bike gliding across the wall? I love that shot.
I went to the Sundance Writers Lab. I wanted Wadjda to just see the bicycle, but it couldn’t just be a moment like that. There had to be an obstacle, and I wanted to build one for her. Fantasizing, I was like, “Let’s have a wall between her and the bicycle, and she’ll see the bike as if it’s a dream, floating across.” I was skeptical that the crew would be able to do it, so we tried to find a wall in Riyadh. We found one, and the bike had to be mounted at a certain level so that it would line up exactly with the wall. They did it, and…you can’t imagine. When you write things and you have a good crew, they’ll make it happen! It was amazing.
I’m sure some people in Saudi are offended by the film.
So I guess that’s an understatement! (laughs)
But they haven’t seen the film, simply because it’s a woman making a film in Saudi. I try to stay within the culture. I come from a conservative place. I know where I come from, and I know what space is available to me, and I need to make the best of that space rather than complain or just make a film that will never be seen.
I’m sure you were prepared for it to be a challenging shoot, but what was the most surprising thing you experienced during production?
There’s absolutely no infrastructure there. There’s a little bit for TV, but it’s totally different. We had a TV crew, but it’s different. TV crews always work inside. We had to shoot outside where people aren’t used to seeing a camera. People were upset and wanted to shoot us and chase us out of the neighborhood. Sometimes we’d only get half of the scene, so we had to go back!
Scheduling was different. We were working with Germans, who said we had to film from 7 to 7, for example. For Saudis, they’d say they’d come at 9 and stay until 9. No, they’re here until 7, so we’d have to pay them overtime. “We can’t pay them overtime!” It was like bringing two cultures together, but it was amazing afterwards how the production was all about people coming together, exchanging knowledge about life and culture. It was amazing, but the first week was difficult nonetheless.
Saudi is a segregated country, of course, so I had to be in a van with a monitor and a walkie-talkie.
Was it for legal reasons?
Nothing’s written, so it’s not illegal, but it’s not expected for a woman to be outside. Men and women working together in public would create a scene. People would interfere and they would try to stop the shoot, and we didn’t want to do that. For me, I didn’t want to clash with the people as much as make a film. That was the aim. It was also amazing to see some places where Saudis were happy and wanted to be part of the film.
So some people were happy to see the production?
Yes! They wanted to pose with the camera. (laughs) They’d say, “I know you! I’ve seen you!” because I had a TV show for a while. I was the host of a talk show.
You had a talk show?
Yeah, but it really wasn’t good. People would fight and we’d try to stop them, but they wouldn’t stop. We’d just cut to commercials. (laughs)
I’m sure people recognized Reem [Abdullah].
They recognized Reem, but it’s hard to film a woman on the streets. That’s the other reason we had Waad [Mohammed]. As a child, she has more freedom and room in the streets and I can film her. But, of course, Reem’s a big star and everybody recognizes her in Saudi.
Reem’s been doing TV for a while, but this is her first feature film, correct?
Yeah. She’s amazing. She’s used to working with a lot of male directors, and this is the first time she’s worked with a female. I feel there was intimacy. We could relate to each other on the same issues and she opened up to me. I’m very grateful that she allowed me to take her to places that are sometimes emotionally difficult for an actor. In the roof scene, she opened up and was really crying. For her, I felt it was almost like therapy. It’s a privilege for any director to have an actor who will give them this kind of access to their emotions. It’s very rare.
It was hard to get her. TV is established, she’s this big star, and there are all these channels making huge shows worth millions. There was us, this little film. We are a small film, and film isn’t established there. The only films are from Qatar, are poorly made, and never got distributed, so it’s almost shameful to be in a film in Saudi. There’s no history. We approached her again and again, and eventually she came on board.
I can imagine how you got in touch with Reem as she’s easy to find, but how did you cast Waad if there’s no movie infrastructure?
Getting Waad was difficult because we had to find the right girl, convince her parents and lots of other people. We saw lots of girls, and if we liked someone, they’d tell us no. We only had 7 days until principal shooting when we found Waad. She came in wearing jeans, similar to the spirit of Wadjda. She had a carefree attitude. I asked her to sing because I needed a girl with a nice voice, and she started singing Justin Bieber. (laughs) I thought she knew English, but she only knows understands Bieber. The new generation of Saudi are into pop culture, are always online, know the stars, get their fashion online, but they’re still local. Still Saudi. They’re not international kids, spending summers in L.A. and stuff like that.
The film will surely empower young girls not just in Saudi, but all over the world. But what’s more empowering is the fact that you, a female director, have made the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Was this on your mind as you started writing the project?
I wanted to write a story about my hometown, about freedom and celebration of that freedom. For me, filming in Saudi was necessary to make an authentic representation. I wasn’t trying to be the first female to film in Saudi or the first person to shoot a film entirely in Saudi. I wasn’t thinking about that. I wanted to make a Saudi film, so it was common sense to film in Saudi. It’s sad because lot of people who work in TV in Saudi leave and go to Dubai or Bahrain because they’re more lenient and open when it comes to film. I wanted to not do that. I think Riyadh is an amazing city and has the potential to give more. It’s a patriotic feeling! (laughs) I hope it gives the country a little push and provides more jobs.
Why was television accepted before movies in Saudi Arabia?
Because there are no theaters, no public exhibitions of films.
Are they building theaters now?
No. Maybe in five years. I hope the movie helps.