Filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour: The "Exceptional Arab Women in Film" Series

Haifaa Al-Mansour
Haifaa Al-Mansour

Pioneering filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first female feature director from Saudi Arabia. Her full-length debut ‘Wadjda’ was the first ever Saudi submission to the Foreign Language Oscar race. Now based in Los Angeles with her family, Al-Mansour is wrapping post-production in Luxembourg on ‘Mary Shelley’, starring Elle Fanning as the ‘Frankenstein’ author and Douglas Booth as the poet Percy Shelley — the novelist’s first love and inspiration. The film is scheduled for release in 2017 and there is definitely a loud, insistent Cannes Film Festival premiere buzz around it. Al-Mansour is also developing an animated feature with her ‘Wadjda’ producers Razor Films titled ‘Miss Camel’ and is writing the screen adaptation of Cara Hoffman’s novel ‘Be Safe I Love You’, the story of a soldier deeply changed by her tour of duty in Iraq.

Born in Al Zulfi near Riyadh, Al-Mansour holds a Master's degree in Directing and Film Studies from the University of Sydney. In 2016, Al-Mansour was invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). She is one of only a handful of representatives from the Middle East which include the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Iranian-American writer and director Ana Lily Amirpour. Al-Mansour’s presence in the Academy reinforces further the emerging role of Arab women filmmakers within the world cinema arena and in Hollywood.

There is infinite wonder to this petite woman with an infectious smile whose film immediately conquered my heart at DIFF, back in 2012. I’ve followed her work ever since, feeling more and more inspired by Al-Mansour’s drive, courage and vision. I will also never forget the endless queue of cars with Saudi license plates lined up, awaiting outside the Madinat Jumeirah for the film’s regional premiere, her compatriots having driven into Dubai to watch ‘Wadjda’ in all its big screen splendor.

With her usual generosity, Al-Mansour sent me the answers to a few questions, indulging the need I had to find out more about the woman behind the filmmaker, and she shared an advance look at her latest film ‘Mary Shelley’.

Elle Fanning in a still from ‘Mary Shelley’
Elle Fanning in a still from ‘Mary Shelley’

When you are not making films, what are you doing?

Haifaa Al-Mansour: When I am not making films I am a full-time mom! It can be hard to be away from the family for long periods of time on a shoot or in post production, so I make the most of family time in-between projects. My two kids keep me very busy and I love watching them grow into independent little people.  

What is your definition of elegance?

Al-Mansour: Elegance comes from a place of strength and confidence. When a person talks with passion and dignity, it comes from a quiet confidence in the purpose of their words. Sometimes just being yourself and acting in a way that you think is right requires going against the way other people want you to act. Doing it in a way that is strong and self assured, without being crass or combative, is the best kind of elegance.  

If you could sit to dinner with five people, alive or dead, who would they be?

Al-Mansour: Of course I would love to have dinner with my father, God rest his soul. He was a poet and philosopher, and always seemed lost in his thoughts. I would love to have a few moments with him to talk about his life and the life that I've created since his passing. I love talking with other filmmakers, especially those who are still looking for new ways and approaches to their work. I was lucky enough to meet many of my heroes at film festivals around the world, like Ethan Cohen and Isabella Rossellini, so if we could get Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese to round out the guest list, I think that would be a really fun meal.  

If you hadn’t become a filmmaker, what would you be doing?

Al-Mansour: I worked at an Oil company in Saudi Arabia for a long time so I would probably still be there. It could be really challenging there, to feel invisible and unheard as I tried to constantly insert my voice into the conversation. It was that frustration that pushed me into filmmaking, so I guess I should be thankful for the motivation, but it was really hard to deal with!  

What was the first film you remember watching?

Al-Mansour: I always think of ‘Snow White’, because I was pretty young when I saw it and it really transported me to another place. My father used to bring the TV out into the courtyard for movie nights, to keep his twelve kids busy, so it was really magical watching it outside under the stars.  

Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s ‘Mary Shelley’
Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s ‘Mary Shelley’

How did you watch films as a child, and how do you watch them now?

Al-Mansour: One of the best things that has ever happened to me is being invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures of Arts and Sciences. I get screeners now of all the latest movies and they hold regular screenings at the Academy where I can not only see the films but hear from the people who made them. The people you meet there are awe inspiring, and the depth of their knowledge and experience is unbelievable. Every discussion is like a masterclass in film studies! I think back to my time in Saudi, where we don't have movie theaters and women were not allowed into video rental places, so I would wait outside and the guy would bring me the catalog to flip through and choose movies. It is quite a different experience now! 

Who are your cinematic inspirations?

Al-Mansour: I grew up with mainstream cinema, so a lot of the films I look back on fondly are very commercial, fun movies. I didn't start really looking at film as an art form until grad school, where I was exposed to so many amazing films and approaches to the craft. I had always been impressed by Iranian filmmakers, especially in the way that they work around the censorship and cultural taboos of their environment. We face many of the same issues, in different degrees, so they have been inspirational to me in finding ways to say things under the surface, and get away with more while saying less.  

How do you “invent” becoming a filmmaker when you grow up, in a country where there are no movie theaters?

Al-Mansour: I became a filmmaker to have my voice heard. It started out as a hobby, an outlet, just to put something out there that says "I exist!" As I explored the medium I saw how much potential there was in it to say something about the place I am from and the things that are important to me. So I went from shorts to documentary to feature narratives, and continue to look for new ways to have my voice heard.  

All images used with permission.

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