Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour

The Trailblazer

Sat, Nov. 24, 2018
A woman like no other, Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour has been accorded many titles that strive to describe the talent, strong will and unique character of a woman who stood against numerous obstacles and entrenched customs and traditions in the most conservative country in the modern world.

As we got the chance to talk to the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia and one of the world’sacclaimed cinematic figures today, we have singled out one exact title that best describes this unique lady: “a dreams hunter”. Al-Mansour is an exemplar of a strong woman who dreamt big, believed in her dream, haunted it and opened a wide door for herself and many more to pursue a once far away fantasy. She is a pioneer who made the impossible possible, by becoming a renowned Saudi Arabian female filmmaker. She is also the first artist from the Arabian Gulf region to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science.

Al-Mansour studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo and completed aMaster’s degree from the University of Sydney. The success of her 2005 documentary “Women Without Shadows” was a breakthrough that was followed by a new wave of Saudi filmmakers and front page headlines of Saudi Arabia finally opening cinemas in the kingdom.

“Wadjda,” Al-Mansour’s feature debut, is the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first by a female director. It received wide critical acclaim after its premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival.

The Saudi filmmaker latest film Nappily Ever After, starring Sanaa Lathan, has already become a popular hit. The film revolves around Violet Jones (Lathan) who has a seemingly perfect life—a high-powered job, a doctor boyfriend and a meticulously maintained, flawless coiffure. But after a life-changing event doesn’t go according to the plan, and a big incident at the hairdresser’s, her life begins to unravel. Eventually, Violet realizes that she was living the life she thought she was supposed to live, not the one she really wanted. Nappily Ever After stars Sanaa Lathan, who is also a producer, alongside Tracey Bing, Jared LeBoff and Marc Platt. Directed by Al-Mansour, and written by Adam Brooks and Cee Marcellus, the film also stars Ricky Whittle, Lyriq Bent, Ernie Hudson and Lynn Whitfield.

Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth, is also set to screen later this year.

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Tell us about Nappily Ever After. Why it was so important for you to create a film like this?
I fell in love with the story because it is essentially about a woman who is only just learning how to really appreciate her self-worth, and on that level it is a journey that is important and relevant for everyone, male or female. Often, we only we see ourselves through others and not through how we really think and feel ourselves, and I believe it is very important to change that perception.

How do you assess your first cooperation with Netflix in Nappily Ever After?
It’s very empowering for me as a director to work on these kinds of projects Netflix are taking which are not only clever but also important, like Nappily Ever After has such a strong female empowerment story that’s wonderful and it wouldn’t have been made without Netflix.

What did you present in Nappily Ever After that wasn’t in you previous movies?
I think it’s the common factor of the strong female character. Female characters who don’t see themselves as victims and basically with Nappily Ever After I fell in love with the storyline. It’s just like a woman who is on a self-discovery journey and self-acceptance, and its hard on me as I am always told you have to set a perfect image and you always have to go through a lot for things to be perfect and it’s a very difficult journey. I was moved by her journey and thought it’s a story that deserve to be told.

Tell us more about what happened behind the scenes of Nappily Ever After and how you chose the movie cast?
I really enjoyed behind the scenes. We filmed inside Georgia and it was my first film in the US because I film overseas, mostly in Europe like in Dublin and Luxembourg. So it was fabulous, it was winter in Georgia and Nappily Ever After was supposed to be in warm weather. But Georgia has such an amazing people and it’s a very pleasant place to work in so I really enjoyed it. Choosing the cast was a journey of finding the right actors, and we used a leading casting agency in Hollywood to help us with choosing the right cast. I was really grateful and the actors we chose were amazing, it was great to work with them.

It is obvious from the trailer of Nappily Ever After that the heroine is an African American girl who is struggling with her identity, how such a serious issue was presented in a comic way? In other words was it difficult for you to direct a movie with such a contrast?
Not at all, i think it’s brilliant and very important to package sensitive issues in such genre, and I think it’s a trick that is sometimes very difficult to do. I think humor can tell so many things, especially when tackling touching subjects, humor make it easier for people to put through and people don’t want to go to movies and get lectured on what’s right and what’s wrong and for me I think it’s good to keep films entertaining and fun to watch. At the end what’s very important is to bring something into the table, that isn’t only creating dialogue and challenging perceptions but also entertaining at the end of the day.

How did you manage to overcome the cultural Saudi barriers and become the first Saudi female director?
I don’t know how, I really don’t. Initially, i started making documentaries and short films and for me it was like a hobby and a place to exist as a woman because sometimes in our society women are very invisible and I think that was the kind of satisfaction that kept me going and making films, not that I wanted to be the first female filmmaker and I wasn’t even aware of that when i started, It’s the desire to exist through film that allowed me to continue making films and still until today that’s what makes me want to make film, I just enjoy being on set and telling a story. We come from a very difficult culture, if you want to overcome it, it’s very important not to focus on how to overcome it as much as how to be happy and that’s what makes us who we are and what enables us at the end to overcome some of the barriers.

You are the first artist from the Arabian Gulf region to be invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science, How do you evaluate such selection? What will be your exact role in the academy?
I was really proud to be a member in the academy and I hope to vote for more Arab films and put more light on Arab filmmakers and i think it’s important to be part and have representation in such an important establishment and I always feel it’s important to represent the women from the Middle East and give voice that we exist and we matter and its very important that people hear us.

How do you evaluate the cultural openness project adopted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, especially in the field of art, theatre and cinema?
I think it’s marvelous, we have a striving economy in Saudi and that striving economy need to be met with a striving culture, and culture can’t survive without art, and art is the heart of every nation and it’s important to invest in cinemas, theatres and also the infrastructure and pay respect for the artists. A lot of people don’t want to be artists in the Middle East because artists are not respected. Many parents don’t want to let their children to become artists. I think it’s very important to make people respect artists and give art its respect in the society. I think it’s an amazing journey that Saudi is going through and it will definitely make Saudi even better.

How do you balance between the multiple roles you play in your life as a director, mother, wife, daughter and even a friend? Which role takes priority?
I think mother for sure, being a mother and a filmmaker is very difficult and very challenging, my family lives in LA so sometimes we have to travel like now I am going to Saudi for my new film and the separation from the kids gives me anxiety because sometimes I am so far away and i don’t want to make it sound easy for women because it’s not going to be easy and that’s the challenge that we always have to go through as women, juggling family and work but it’s also part of life and we have to accept it and I try my best to be with my family, just to be with the kids and volunteer in their school and merge into their life and make the best out of the time that i spend with them and I try to bring them on set when they travel, so it’s difficult but it’s the price of the job and I salute every working mother.

What’s next for you? What’s next in the pipeline?
I’m going back to Saudi Arabia to shoot another film The Perfect Candidate, which is about a female doctor, so I’m preparing for that and I am of course excited to be going back to Saudi.
 
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