Creating an atmosphere for change – Interview with Haifaa Al Mansour - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Interviews im Juli 2024 - Beitrag vom 05.09.2013

Creating an atmosphere for change – Interview with Haifaa Al Mansour
Veronika Siegl

Subtlety and dialogue – These are crucial elements in the work of the Saudi-Arabian film director who is determined to make a contribution to her country´s opening. After a number of short...

… movies and the renowned documentary "Women Without Shadows" (2005), Al Mansour recently released her first feature film "Wadjda". It tells the story of a ten-year-old girl´s relentless and creative fight for finally owning the green bicycle she passes daily on her way to school – even though cycling is not allowed for women in Saudi Arabia.

AVIVA spoke to Haifaa Al Mansour via Skype about her personal struggle for living her dream and the difficult task of making a film as a female director in a country that has no tradition in cinema.

AVIVA-Berlin: You studied English Literature at the American University of Kairo and were planning to become a teacher. What made you turn to filmmaking and what possibility does this medium open up to you?
Haifaa Al Mansour: After college, I came back home and started teaching English in an oil company and I felt so invisible as a woman. It wasn´t anything against me as a person, but more the way the culture is. Women are not heard and seen enough. That time was a low point in my life and I wanted to take up a hobby that would let me express myself and give me a voice. Film had always been a big part of my life, when we were little, my parents used to bring a lot of videos home. My first project was a short film I made with the help of everybody in my family. We sent it to a small competition in Abu Dhabi and got accepted and when I went there to present my work, they said they had never seen any woman from Saudi Arabia making films. So I was the first female director and I was so proud! Then I started educating myself in film and trying to make something that is meaningful.

AVIVA-Berlin: Making your debut film "Wadjda" must have been a great challenge. Saudi Arabia has hardly any infrastructure for filmmaking, cinemas have been banned since the 1980s. What difficulties and barriers did you encounter in the five years working on the movie?
Haifaa Al Mansour: People don´t believe in films coming from this part of the world. Specifically not in simple stories about everyday life, about a girl on a bicycle. They want more drama and more horrific stories – that sells better than subtleness in the Middle East. Because Saudi Arabia doesn´t have a tradition of filmmaking, there is no expertise, no funding, there are no co-production treaties, you have to start from zero. It´s not like Egypt, Morocco or the Lebanon. Finding producers that are willing to think out of the box and who are willing to come to a conservative place like Saudi Arabia was very difficult. I was really happy to come into contact with Razor film from Germany, they really believed in the project, stood by it and were able to raise money. At the last minute, the Saudi production company Rotana – owned by Prince Al Waleed bin Talal – also came on board. That was one aspect. Another problem was dealing with the public while filming. People got nervous and in some of the more conservative neighbourhoods they wanted us to leave. They don´t like cinemas, they don´t like films and they don´t like cameras in their streets. But of course there were also some neighbourhoods where people were very kind and even exited.

AVIVA-Berlin: How did your role as a female director influence the filmmaking process?
Haifaa Al Mansour: It did make things more complicated, because the country is very segregated. When we were shooting outside, for example, I was not able to be on the street with the crew. I was always separated in a van, observing on a monitor and communicating through a walkie-talkie. But I was screaming and interfering all the time, so even when people in the neighbourhoods couldn´t see me, they could still hear me.

AVIVA-Berlin: Considering that your film touches upon the topic of women´s desires and rights in Saudi Arabia, it seems surprising that you managed to get not only permission for filming but also the support of Prince Al Waleed bin Talal.
Haifaa Al Mansour: Saudi Arabia is opening up now. There is room for arts and room for women. But you still have to be respectful with the culture. I tried to make a film that contains my voice, a film in which I can speak about the situation in my home town, my childhood, the school I went to, relationships I witnessed. But I also tried not to make people feel exposed or offended. I chose the perspective of a child because that gave more freedom in telling the story and more mobility going out in the streets. I wanted to have a female hero, and having a kid who is on the verge of maturity seemed like the only way, because she can be outside, run, ride a bike, do lots of things.

AVIVA-Berlin: Ten-year old Wadjda is a rebel. She knows the rules and she also knows how to circumvent them.
Haifaa Al Mansour: Yes, she does. I based her a lot on my niece, who is very feisty and has a great sense of humour. She is always scheming, always has a plan. When we were auditioning, I was trying to find her spirit in every girl, and Waad was very similar. She was dressed in shabby jeans, had messy hair and was listening to Justin Bieber. That was really cool.

AVIVA-Berlin: In how far is Wadjda´s story meant to inspire girls and women to follow their dreams and stand in for more liberties?
Haifaa Al Mansour: That´s definitely an essential aspect. People talk about revolution and big things, but they don´t talk about the real desires to be happy and to achieve things. Achieving things on a personal level is very important and makes a lot of difference in the long run, it can change society. Women should believe in themselves and also take the step to work hard on achieving their dream. Not by being aggressive, but by being assertive and that´s a huge difference. I want women to never give up. It´s difficult in a place like here, because the culture is against you. So it´s important to provide the image and women you try and succeed in what they do.

AVIVA-Berlin: There are a number of women who publicly fight for their rights. One example is activist Manal Al Sharif, who started the campaign "Women2Drive", directed against the law prohibiting women to drive cars. How visible is the women´s movement?
Haifaa Al Mansour: It is very visible. A lot of people know about it, it certainly raises awareness and I hope the movement will succeed more. But if actions clash too much with society, a lot of people pull away. I feel it´s very important to take care more, to seek the dialogue, to let people embrace change in their own time, not to push them – that only makes conservatives cling to their values and fight back more. A lot of artists complain about the limited space you have in conservative places. That is certainly true, but I always think, if you want to say something, you can say it, because there are so many ways of saying things.

AVIVA-Berlin: In April 2013 the law prohibiting cycling for women was slightly loosened, they are now allowed to cycle in recreational areas. Do you think this might be a consequence of your film?
Haifaa Al Mansour: The film was out in the press, everybody was writing about it. As an artist, I see my job in creating the atmosphere for change to happen, to make people talk about it. So yes, in one way or another, my film definitely contributed to the law.

AVIVA-Berlin: "Wadjda" was a big success, it received standing ovations at the Film Festival in Venice in 2012. How is your work received in your home country?
Haifaa Al Mansour: Well, it´s still a conservative place, so a lot of people still think that women shouldn´t go out and make films. But young people like my work. We couldn´t show the film in my home country, but we screened it in Bahrain and especially younger Saudis laughed a lot. They see themselves, they identify with the little girl. When "Wadjda" comes out on DVD, people living in Saudi Arabia can also watch it. In Saudi Arabia, there is nothing against the concept of film as such, but against the public exhibition in a commercial theatre. That´s also why a lot of filmmakers – especially those making shorts and documentaries – work online.

AVIVA-Berlin: What are your plans for the next years? Can we expect another feature film from Saudi Arabia?
Haifaa Al Mansour: I would love to continue with filmmaking and I want to work with Razor and Rotana again, it´s a good combination. I would definitely go back to Saudi Arabia, because it´s such an amazing place to tell stories. There´s so much to tell, so many things about the country people don´t know about. But I have no concrete ideas or stories yet. I try to tell stories that I know something about, that I´m personally connected to. "Wadjda" was not my real story, but it was still my world. Saudi is a very segregated country, I mainly have access to the women´s world. So the film might be about the role of women again, but on the other hand, I would also love to go to that other part and learn more about the men´s world.

AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you for the interview. We look forward to your next film and hope it will inspire many women – in and outside Saudi Arabia.

Lesen Sie auch unsere Rezension des Films, unter:

Das Mädchen Wadjda - Ein Film von Haifaa Al Mansour

Weitere Informationen:

Ten minutes with... Haifaa Al Mansour (The World Today Vol. 68, Nr. 6/9)

Haifaa al-Mansour, a woman´s voice from Arabi (

Haifaa Al Mansour: Calling the shots in a man´s world (The Independent)

Undercover director: Saudi film-maker Haifaa al-Mansour (The Financial Times)

The Remarkable Story Behind the First Movie Shot Entirely in Saudi Arabia (Times)

Weiterlesen auf AVIVA-Berlin:

Persepolis – Ein Film von Marjan Satrapi

Nasrin Amirsedghi - Die Stellung der Frau im Gottesstaat Iran

Copyright photo of Haifaa Al Mansour: Veronika Siegl


Beitrag vom 05.09.2013