The first woman film director in Saudi Arabia
“My work is dedicated to bringing about political, social and economic change for Arab women”, tells Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female film director. FORUM met her during the Dox Box 2009 documentary film festival in Damascus, at which her award-winning film Women without Shadows was screened.
She has received hate mails, offensive text messages and even death threats. She has been accused of making only prejudiced films which pander to the West, denounced for criticising Islam and been labelled a blemish on Saudi society. But none of this can suppress Saudi Arabia’s first woman film director. She has found a meaningful career as a film director and hopes that her work will inspire other women in Saudi Arabia to dare to take chances and gain control of their lives. After all, being a woman in Saudi Arabia is certainly not easy – especially if you have ambitions of expressing yourself on the big screen.
Despite the many impediments, Haifaa Al-Mansour has succeeded in producing three small short films and in 2005 she released her film Women without Shadows. This documentary film examines the restrictive rules governing how women should dress in Saudi Arabia. Women without Shadows has been screened at many international film festivals, as well as here in Damascus, and has won a number of awards including The Golden Dagger at the Muscat Film Festival in Oman. Not least, the film has created debate – both at home and abroad – and has put Saudi Arabia as a film-producing nation firmly on the map.
She is now working on her first full-length motion film – a children’s film partly financed by and filmed in Saudi Arabia. Like her other films, this too will focus on the institutionalised oppression of women in her homeland. This time, Al-Mansour expresses her social criticism through the genre of children’s fiction. However, this is a criticism which is difficult to spread to the Saudi population at large for one basic reason – there are no cinemas in Saudi Arabia.
The film industry in Saudi Arabia faces extremely restrictive conditions – cinemas are banned and film production is almost non-existent. The first ever Saudi Arabian film saw the light of day as recently as 2006, with Haifaa Al-Mansour actually mentioned in its credits as ‘Associate Producer’. The film – Keif al-Hal? (roughly translated as How are you?) – was actually filmed in the UAE and featured Jordanian actors in the title roles. Al-Mansour explains the ban and the Saudi fear for the medium of film as follows:
“The ruling religious elite are convinced that film is an immoral medium and they believe that films can corrupt the pure and unblemished Saudi society, which is of course completely wrong. They have no idea what film actually is and their understanding of art is extremely limited. They actually believe that if the ban on film is lifted then everyone will watch nothing but porn!” smiles Al-Mansour.
Instigating change through film
“Film is a tool which should be used to provide society an opportunity to reflect within itself. Films are not merely entertainment. They offer us a space in which we can be more accepting and more tolerant – and this is exactly my primary objective. When I make a film, I want people to reflect upon the way things are and not to simply accept the world as it stands. One thing, which there has been a long tradition of in this part of the world, is the poor treatment of women. Because we’re used to it and because it goes on every single day we forget that it is wrong”, explains Al-Mansour.
“Many people in Saudi Arabia wish for other cultures to accept us for who we are, but in actuality, this is a very difficult challenge – even for many Saudis. Frankly, I don’t want to accept discrimination against me. I want things to change. I want more respect for women in Saudi Arabia and freedom of speech and more compassion for our fellow humans and…well, I could go on and on. I believe that my films can make people relate to that which many in the world take for granted”, stresses Al-Mansour.
Privileged and protected
Haifaa Al-Mansour has a no-holds-barred approach when it comes to describing her homeland and is not shy to label Saudi society “crazy”. But Al-Mansour is no ordinary Saudi woman. She is more outspoken and enterprising than most, which to a large extent can be attributed to her sheltered upbringing.
Al-Mansour grew up within (by Saudi standards) a very liberal family, the eighth of a total of twelve siblings. Her father is a legal advisor and also a well-known poet. Whilst growing up, Al-Mansour watched her mother defy the written – and unwritten – rules of society, for example, sometimes going out without wearing a headscarf. Her father allowed her eldest sister to travel abroad to study, something many in Saudi society viewed as completely unacceptable.
“We’re a liberal family living in a very conservative society”, explains Al-Mansour. “I don’t come from a rich family – I suppose you could call us upper-middleclass. My father is well-educated and is a very progressive man whose wish was that we children should have an education, too. He’s always supported us and I’ve never felt held back because I was a girl – despite the fact that I’m from a country which imposes a great many restrictions upon women.”
For Haifaa as a child, this protective upbringing was not always seen in a positive light.
“When I started in secondary school, I became more aware about cultivating friendships. I quickly noticed that none of my school friends wanted to come to my home to visit. Their excuse was that, according to them, I was secular and liberal. They told me that I wasn’t suitable ‘friend-material’ and explained that their parents had forbidden them to come to my house. So from quite a young age I felt that I was different from the rest. At the time this made me angry, but today I’m really thankful that my parents protected me from this ridiculous culture – a culture that’s absurdly fundamentalist and so heavily based upon dynastical tribal houses. This was the best gift my parents could ever have given me.”
Freedom on two wheels
One episode which Haifaa Al-Mansour particularly remembers exemplifies just how much she and her family stood out from the surrounding society and reflects their refusal to bow to its cultural values.
“When I was little, my brothers wanted bicycles and my father took me along, as all of us were to get one. However, the man selling the bicycles refused to sell one to me. With an air of complete disbelief at being asked, he said to my father “But she’s a girl!” Fortunately, my father was determined to treat us equally so I got my bike!”
This freedom did, however, come with limitations. Al-Mansour could not cycle in the street as this was too dangerous for girls. Nevertheless, she had the bicycle in the house and this in itself embodied the family’s rebellion against the suppressive structure of Saudi Arabian society.
Inspired by reality
This early experience of rebellion provided her with direct inspiration for her first feature film: a children’s film upon which she is currently working. “It’s a coming-of-age film about a ten-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia who becomes emotionally attached to a little green bicycle (precisely the same as the one I had!) Every day, on her way to school, the little girl sees the bike, but when she herself tries to get a bike she goes against the norms of society – a society which forbids outdoor activities and mobility for women.”
How the story progresses and ends has to be seen in the film, but one thing is important to Al-Mansour:
“The film has to be uplifting and be respectful to women – and it must aid the empowerment of Saudi women. It’s important that the film creates respect for this little person who has a dream and who follows this dream, despite all the obstacles in her way. She pays the price for her choice, but nothing is free – our freedom is something we all must fight for. This is the message I aim to convey through the film and I’m sure that, eventually, we women will win this respect and people will appreciate what we have done.”
Social criticism at children’s level
It comes as no surprise that Al-Mansour mentions Iranian films as one of her great sources of inspiration. Film directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Samira Makhmalbsf are just two of the many Iranian directors who have used the media of children’s films as a basis for allegorical social narrative.
“Saudi Arabia and Iran have, of course, two different histories, but our societies share many common traits: both are extremely conservative and the political situation in the two countries is also comparable. Iran, though, has a very long tradition of film-making, and in this respect our two countries differ greatly. But perhaps I’m inspired by the Iranian practice of using children’s films as a form of subliminal criticism. I for one am very keen to bring an aspect of social criticism into my films”, stresses Al-Mansour.
The man behind the veil
In her very first film – the short film Who? from 2003 – Saudi society’s requirements for women to be completely covered up is thrust into focus.
“At that time, there were rumours going about that a serial killer was on the loose. Everyone was advised to lock their doors as this killer was supposedly a man who went door to door begging, though in actuality he murdered people. The killer was supposedly dressed as a woman – and you know just how women dress in Saudi Arabia – completely covered up from head to toe. Of course, none of it was true at all, but I couldn’t help wondering what if it actually had been true. People expect women to be completely covered up, but this itself can also be a source of fear for some. So, I made a film about a serial killer – a man disguised as a woman, covered completely in black with gloves and the lot – who goes around killing people completely undetected.”
An invisible existence
“Once the film was finished, I didn’t really know what to do with it. But then it got picked to be included in a competition in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Suddenly my film was out on the Internet and was watched by all Saudis – and they all hated me for making it. They said that I was ‘anti-Islam’ because I criticised the way women should be covered up. But for me, the fact that women are completely covered really is an issue of security. The problem is that society is populated by so many people with no identity.”
In her latest film, the documentary Women without Shadows from 2005, which is still being played at film festivals around the world, Al-Mansour meets women who are either too uncomfortable or too uneasy to express themselves in the presence of a camera. Although most eventually are persuaded to speak, they remain completely covered up. These are women without faces, women with whom you cannot create eye-contact. For Al-Mansour, this is an abomination:
“Your face is your identity, but these covered-up women have no identity. As a consequence, they erode away at their own existence. This leads to social problems. Women are left isolated within the community because people don’t know who they are. No one can relate to them and as a result they become mere abstract objects roaming the landscape. They are non-entities. And they themselves don’t even know who they are”, laments Al-Mansour.
“Conditions are tough for women in Saudi Arabia. We’re not allowed to drive cars and we can’t travel out of the country without permission from a so-called ‘guardian’. These ‘guardians’ can be a father, a brother or sometimes even a son. The ‘guardian’ has either to chaperone the woman or provide written permission.”
Women don’t have the right to vote, even though the only elections held are local elections, as there is no democracy in Saudi Arabia. Saudi women cannot marry non-Saudis without authorisation from the Saudi Ministry of the Interior – and this can take up to two years to get. Saudi women are prevented from taking control of their own lives, and it’s this which is the problem,” states Al-Mansour and continues:
“We have to work in gender-segregated workplaces. Women aren’t permitted to work with men. And this severely limits work opportunities for women. I myself used to work in an oil company. There, not only did I have to sign my contract, but also my father had to. He had to sign that he didn’t mind me working there. At this time, I’d completed my university education, was grown up and was capable of making my own decisions. Nevertheless, my father still had to sign that bit of paper in order for me to have the opportunity to work. It’s absurd!”
Paying ultimate price to work
Al-Mansour’s workplace was American-owned and therefore more liberal than most. Here, she was not required to cover herself up completely and men and women worked side-by-side. But there are extremely few workplaces where men and women can work together. This too leads to social problems according to Al-Mansour:
“The most common education among Saudi women is that of school teacher. This is one of the only professions where women can work solely with other women, but the level of unemployment among teachers is extremely high. Schools in urban areas have no vacancies, so women have to take jobs out in deserted country areas. As they are prohibited from driving cars and as public transport is non-existent, many are forced to walk to and from work. Some end up paying the ultimate price – quite literally dropping dead at the roadside. It’s a vicious circle and women are paying the price.”
However, not all women agree with Haifaa Al-Mansour that women are suppressed in Saudi Arabia. It comes as a surprise to see, or more correctly, to hear two completely covered women in the film Women without Shadows applauding the prevailing views that ‘women should only have freedom within the home’. Has the young generation been brain-washed by the country’s religious rulers?
“In actual fact, older women are more modern than the younger generation. I believe that the younger generation, to a greater extent, has read the old religious doctrines because during the 1980s and 1990s we were ruled by a very fundamentalist school system with a strict interpretation of Islam: ‘women had to stay in the home; women had to cover their faces; in fact, women had to cover everything so they wore black gloves and stockings so nothing could be seen.’ I think that it’s this period which is responsible for the younger generation actually believing that women should not be entitled to any rights.”
Change since 9/11
“There is some hope for progress. Even though it’s difficult, Saudi Arabia has faced increasing pressure from the outside world since 9/11 and this pressure is aiding the advent of change. So there is at least one plus from that September day in 2001. Even the fundamental Islamic schools have begun to re-examine the literature they use. We’re not talking fundamental changes, but they are changes nevertheless.”
“People generally don’t like change – they need to be coerced. But I believe that women in Saudi Arabia are suffering and that they need desperately to gain control over their own lives and need to be inspired and have role models.”
Pioneer among women
Haifaa Al-Mansour herself does not shy away from her role model status, whose work can inspire other women to change their behaviour. But she also realises that by Saudi standards, she is no ordinary woman.
“I’m a privileged person. I don’t suffer from the many constraints which so many Saudi women face. I’d love to see other women like myself – the first woman film director or the first woman pilot or whatever – I’d just love to see them do well. We need to start seeing normal middle-class women taking chances. For us all to reach the collective conclusion that women need to change, it’s going to take time. It’s happening now in Saudi Arabia – I can see it happening. But it’s happening very, very slowly”, explains Al-Mansour.
The fear of change runs deep among the religious and conservative powers in Saudi Arabia. As a direct result, making films in the country, and not least showing them, is extremely difficult. Haifaa Al-Mansour has, however, shown her film Women without Shadows in the French Consulate in Saudi Arabia, but at best, according to Al-Mansour, it received a ‘critical reception’.
“Some people became upset and angry, accusing me of making films which pander to the West. But I don’t make films for the West. I do, however, want to make films which can be shown at international film festivals, because this makes us part of the world. The angry voices can’t understand that we need to engage with the outside world in order for it to understand us. In the same way that we glean understanding of American, French or Egyptian culture by watching American, French or Egyptian films people need to hear about Saudi society.”
“My showing of Women without Shadows in Saudi Arabia created a great deal of controversy and the news were full of stories about the film’s screening. One particularly controversial element was the fact that in the film a sheik had said that ‘women don’t need to cover their faces’. He had been under the impression that this was a film bound only for western audiences, not Saudi audiences. Following the film’s screening, the sheik received a visit from a religious delegation who asked him to retract his earlier comments, which he did. In reality, this controversy was the best thing that could have happened. For the next two weeks I was a constant guest on prime-time TV in a Today Show-type programme on Al Jazeera. This made me a well-known film producer across Saudi Arabia. I don’t think this is what the conservative Saudis had had in mind and it helped me to become a popular figure”, grins Al-Mansour.
Things must make sense
Al-Mansour is not merely a figure who incites loathing in Saudi Arabia and, by her own account, she has succeeded in sparking off many discussions in her homeland which otherwise would never have gained a foothold.
“I believe I won respect with the film. I don’t insult Islam or religious people but nor do I accept things that don’t make sense. And I always ask whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to discuss things. All Saudis stand as brothers so let’s fight the same battles. After all, in a family we speak with each other in order to understand each other. We need to open up our hearts to each other. I believe that with this mind-set we’ve already won respect – even from those who don’t share my opinions.”
A margin of freedom
Today, it is not a problem for her to return to Saudi Arabia from Australia where she now lives with her American diplomat husband. In fact, Al-Mansour has even received financial backing from Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al-Waleed, nephew of Saudi King Abdullah.
“Sixty percent of the budget for my next film is coming from Saudi Arabia. Prince Al-Waleed is an entrepreneur who invests a lot of money in films. I think that he has confidence in women and that he believes that empowering women makes sense. So, for women who want to achieve something in Saudi Arabia, there is now a golden opportunity. Right now, there’s a margin of freedom open to women film producers, writers and other artists which we should seize upon to help improve the situation there.”
The courage to provoke
Haifaa Al-Mansour hopes that her new film – her first full-length motion picture – will be shown in Saudi Arabia, not least because there is so much Saudi money invested in it. But even if it is not shown there, she knows that people are willing to travel to Saudi Arabia’s neighbouring countries to go to the cinema
“Every weekend people travel out of Saudi Arabia, for example to Bahrain, just to go to the cinema. And I’m certain that many will also make such a journey to see my film. After all, they can’t criticise me unless they have seen my work”, chuckles Al-Mansour, finishing with a wry smile:
“I’ll give them something to talk about!”