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Meet the 2013 Tribeca Filmmakers #61: Haifaa Al Mansour Navigates the Prohibited World of Cinema in Saudi Arabia to Create ‘Wadjda’

Meet the 2013 Tribeca Filmmakers #61: Haifaa Al Mansour Navigates the Prohibited World of Cinema in Saudi Arabia to Create 'Wadjda'

Haifaa Al Mansour is a first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. Although cinema is
illegal in Saudi, she traces her attraction to film back to her childhood when her father used to
arrange movie nights for her and her siblings. Saudi started allowing video rental places when she
was older, but women weren’t allowed to enter.  Haifaa made friends
with the guy that worked in the video store and he would bring the catalog to the
door for her to look through. She says, “it took me a while but I finally got up the
courage to start making short films of my own in 2003, which were the
first narrative films of any kind from the Kingdom.  After a few shorts I
made my documentary, ‘Women Without Shadows,’ in 2006 and started
getting some international attention.” “Wadjda” is her first feature film.

What it’s about: “Wadjda” is the first film ever shot in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is the story of a girl determined to fight for her dreams.

What else do you want audiences to know?:We
shot the entire film in Riyadh, with an all-Saudi cast.  It was
important to me to show an authentic representation of my country.
 Despite the ban on cinema, we were able to work within the system by
getting permits to shoot with the procedures that are already in place
for television production.  It was difficult, not because of the
authorities, but more from the people who are not used to seeing cameras
in their neighborhood- and are not open to the idea of having them
around. Having said that, It is a film about hope and embracing the love
life.”

On the challenges: “Without
the basic infrastructure of a film industry, every aspect of the film’s
development presented challenges.  A big problem was casting, since we
can’t have open casting calls in Saudi because of the sensitivities with
women acting.  Filming in Riyadh was a challenge as well.  People
aren’t used to having cameras around so we were especially cautious,
even though we had permission to shoot publicly.  For a lot of the
outdoor scenes we knew we were going to face a lot of difficulties, from
conservative bystanders to sandstorms to nervous partners, so we had to
be ready to work with what we had on any given day. I occasionally
directed from a protected spot, like a van, so people wouldn’t see me -a
woman – interacting publicly with the crew – men.”

What she hopes audiences will walk away with:I
feel that most Western audiences have ideas and concepts about women in
Saudi but don’t know much about the day-to-day life of women in the
Kingdom.  I think they probably understand that it is hard to be a woman
in Saudi Arabia, but I want the audience to see how strong the women
are in my country. I’m not sure if there are misconceptions, but I don’t
think people realize how tough Saudi women are.  They are sarcastic and
sassy and the new generation has a whole new outlook and window to the
world.  They are empowered and motivated to improve their status within
the society in ways my generation could never have imagined.  They are
survivors.
”

Films that inspired her:Of
course “The Bicycle Thieves” was a source of inspiration.  I was also
really inspired by the films of the Dardeene brothers, particularly
“Rosetta.” That film really made a strong impression on me- both in the
simplicity of the story and the emotional intensity of the young
protagonist. I also love the Cohen brothers, and learned a lot about
balancing out serious subjects with humor to deepen a film’s emotional
impact.”

What’s next: “I
definitely plan to make more films from inside the Kingdom, but also
look for powerful stories from all over the world. There are so
many untold stories in Saudi and it is such an interesting, hidden
world. I think the outside world is curious about our lives and the way
that Saudis maneuver through this very restrictive system.”

Indiewire
invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films,
including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re
doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013
festival.

Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on April 17 for the latest profiles.

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