Haifaa Al Mansour lauds the KSA's "revolutionary" changes
Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who was recently elected a member on the board of the KSA’s General Culture Authority, has unveiled news of her feature film in the works around Saudi Arabia’s latest sociocultural developments. The film sheds light on the new state of affairs for Saudi women’s rights and roles, and not without context. Commenting on the developments that gave birth to her latest work in progress, Al Mansour lauded Saudi Arabia’s reformative action, which she believes is driving “revolutionary changes” that elevate it to the ranks of developed countries.
Al Mansour voiced her views and pride in an op-ed in The New York Times. In the op-ed, she recollects her early childhood love for movies in a country where cinema licenses had been historically prohibited – up until recently, when cinema chain AMC was granted the first license to open in the country after an enduring 35-year ban.
Back in the day, Al Mansour’s only access to films as a young Saudi girl was a “crummy local video shop” in Riyadh. Women were banned from entering such shops, and so, Al Mansour would patiently wait outside until a male worker brought her movie catalogues she could flip through.
From Jackie Chan, to Bollywood, to Disney, Al Mansour was transported into a limitless world of imagination from the confines of her screen. Despite an impossible setting at the time for the cinema industry in Saudi Arabia, movies instilled in Al Mansour so much passion and drive to, one day, become a filmmaker herself. Today, and after April 8’s first showing of a movie, Marvel’s “Black Panther”, in Saudi theaters, breaking an enduring cinema ban in the Kingdoms, the setup for Al Mansour’s ambitions – and naturally, many others who will follow suit – is entirely different.
Al Mansour imagines a bigger picture for this development, under a spate of sociocultural reforms undertaken by the Kingdom. She believes the latter are driving progress seamlessly and effortlessly. From cinema licensing to women driving and attending sports stadiums, to public concerts, decade-long demands by Saudis are being met at record speed.
To this backdrop, Saudi Arabia’s societal state of affairs is fast approaching the “normalcy” of other developed countries. The Kingdom’s developments and recent decisions on cultural freedom and mobility may not be well understood or appreciated by residents of foreign countries. Saudis, on the other hand, understand and appreciate their paramount significance, and their “revolutionary” impact on their everyday life, Al Mansour explained.
Throughout her filmmaking career, Al Mansour’s body of work has grown to include short, feature films and documentaries, most of which had centered on the “plight of women in the Arab world”. In 2012, Al Mansour directed “Wajda”, the first long form feature film to have been shot on Saudi territory, and the first Saudi film to have been nominated for an Oscar.
The film tells the story of a young girl whose dream is to own a bicycle, and that of her mother, whose everyday life is controlled by a foreign male driver and a careless husband. The story and film resonated with a worldwide audience, and portrayed a realistic picture of Saudi women’s dreams and ambitions in the Kingdom. It also, justly, highlighted a transformation in Saudi Arabia that had already begun.
Reflecting on Saudi Arabia’s progressive development across sectors through her own career, Al Mansour compares the challenges and tribulations she faced in her early days to her future ambitions. In the past, Al Mansour could not pursue cinematic studies or kick-start her film career in the Kingdom. She had to travel abroad with her husband – an American diplomat – to study filmmaking.
When she came back home to shoot “Wajda”, she had to direct outdoor scenes for the movie from inside of a car, as she called the shots with a monitor and a walkie-talkie. It was the only workaround to the Kingdom’s then strict gender segregation regulations. Moreover, Al Mansour could not set up her production company without a male sponsor from her family. Often, her dependence on men who were unqualified to do work she could have done solo was “infuriating”. Now, six years later, Al Mansour can open her own production company, aptly and proudly naming it Haifaaa Al Mansour Productions.
Al Mansour’s upcoming production, entitled “The Perfect Candidate”, revolves around a young female doctor who runs for municipal office, while her father is on tour with the recently revived Saudi National Band – which had long been prohibited along with music concerts in the Kingdom. The film, Al Mansour explains, paints the picture of Saudi women’s new political ambitions, and celebrates the return of the arts and music scene in the country.
The Saudi director reveals that, when she wanted to raise funds for “Wajda”, potential investors and partners had doubts around the possibility of shooting the movie in the Kingdom. In light of recent developments, however, producers are changing tones. Today, they are eager and on board. Al Mansour’s films are nothing short of safe bets, and Saudi Arabia, a ripe setting for production.
In the wider context, Al Mansour says that the changes witnessed by Saudi Arabia today are shifting perceptions of the Kingdom; particularly since the milestone lift on the driving ban for women, the inspiration for “Wajda”, in which she highlighted the struggle of Saudi women with their freedom of mobility. In the film, the character of Wajda’s mother’s driver represented the most frustrating aspect of Saudi women’s lives. Come June, this character will be shelved in history books, when Saudi women officially obtain their rights for a driver’s license for the first time since 1957.
Recently, Al Mansour was joined by two other women and 13 men in an invite from the Saudi Minister of Culture and Information, Awad Al-Awad, to join the new board of directors for the General Culture Authority. When she landed in Riyadh from Los Angeles, she added in the op-ed, she felt that her country had changed; women were moving around with much more freedom, donning colorful outfits and working in stores. And they were not escaping the attention given to them.
What was deemed impossible in the past, Al-Mansour concluded her op-ed, has become status quo. That is when Saudis’ real legwork will be to go from ordinary lives to extraordinary achievements.
Al Mansour, who’d been subjected to public scrutiny in the past for her cinematic career and focus on women’s issues, is very happy with the royal decree to form a new board for the General Culture Authority. She is particularly proud of her election as a member on this board, little did she expect to earn a place in a governmental authority after such public scrutiny, and to actively partake in shaping the Kingdom’s future cultural and artistic face.