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Talking 'Wadjda' Firsts: Film Shot Entirely in Saudia Arabia, and By a Woman (TRAILER)

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood September 9, 2013 at 12:04PM

When Haifaa Al Mansour made a short film several years ago with her brother and sister, and it was accepted at a regional film competition in Abu Dhabi, she didn't know she was taking on the title of Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker. In the fall of 2012, she went to the Venice International Film Festival with "Wadjda," the first feature film to be made by a Saudi woman, and the first to be shot entirely inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It recently scored an Indie Spirit nomination for Best First Feature.

There are no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia, and cinema is banned. What was your exposure to film while growing up?

Blockbuster is big in Saudi. Video rental! And I am one of twelve kids. I’m number eight, so you can imagine our house, and I grew up in a very small town. So my father used to go and rent a lot of videos, just to keep us calm. We watched a lot of films. I watched Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan -- I don’t know if that was a good idea, because we started trying out martial arts around the house -- and we watched a lot of Bollywood, and a lot of Egyptian cinema. A lot of Hollywood films. I remember watching “Snow White” was one of the happiest [memories] in my life.

Nothing like auteur cinema. It was mainstream, but still, I was in this small town. Just watching took me places. Colorado, I saw mountains, I saw China, it’s amazing as a kid. So I fell in love with the medium since I was little.

How did you eventually become a filmmaker -- the first woman filmmaker in Saudi Arabia?

When I finished college, I went back to Saudi. I studied at the American University in Cairo. So I went back home to find a job, and I started working at an oil company. And as a young woman, especially in Saudi, you feel invisible. Nobody hears you. I felt so -- not stressed -- but very, very low. It was hard for me to just have a voice of my own. So I started making films, just as a hobby. A kind of a therapy. And I made a short with my brother holding the camera, and my sister. I edited it with my friends. And then I submitted it to a small local competition in Abu Dhabi. And it got accepted! I was invited with the film. I was like, what? They are paying for my ticket? So I went there, and they told me, “We haven’t seen films coming from Saudi Arabia, and certainly we haven’t seen any women [filmmakers] coming from Saudi Arabia, so you are the first female filmmaker.”

I take the title with a lot of pride. It’s nice to be breaking boundaries. But for me, it’s the passion of film. It’s not like I’m trying to make any political statements. Doing something that’s really satisfying, and telling a story, it’s fun.

What are the different reactions to you in Saudi Arabia?

It’s a very conservative place. And the people, they don’t like women to come and be filmmakers and speak for themselves. So a lot of people are against that. When I started, I had a lot of opposition. People were so angry. But now I feel like they’re a little bit more relaxed. And I try to respect the conservatives. Even when I’m writing, I try to write things that maintain my voice as a filmmaker, but I know that I come from a conservative place, I know people that are worried. They’re nervous how they will be portrayed in film, they don’t want to be exposed. And for me it’s not really to expose, or to clash, as much as tell an intimate story about the culture. So I think that they respect that, and they’ve calmed a little.

Is there an ongoing dialogue between women filmmakers in the Middle East?

We have regional festivals where we get together, but I don’t think the Middle East is very organized in that way. We don’t have an association for women filmmakers. I think there is all this moral support, when we see each other, we want each other to do well and we want to push for each other. But there is nothing official. I’m really happy to be part of an exciting group of filmmakers -- like Cherien Dabis, Nadine Labaki and Annemarie Jacir. They’re all strong female voices coming from the Middle East, telling intimate stories about themselves, about what they believe, and it’s amazing how their films are heard way more than their male counterparts.

How do you feel about the representation of women in Middle Eastern films?

I try to make an entertaining story. I know films that are coming from the Middle East, especially about women, and they have to be horrific. Someone has to be raped and stoned and stuff like that. For me, that wasn’t what broke me when I lived in Saudi. [It was] everyday life. The everyday life where you feel you cannot do things. And it has so much power -- it’s trivial, but it builds up and builds up. And it makes your life harder. For me, it was very important to tell that story. So I hope people see the humor and see the fun in my film, and get emotionally moved by this little girl’s journey. 

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews , Los Angeles Film Festival, Haifaa al Mansour, Wadjda

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.