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Tuesday 25 June 2019

Saudi Arabia’s first female director: I was ridiculed and dismissed

Haifaa Al-Mansour said she hopes the success she has had will make it easier for other women to follow in her footsteps.

Haifaa Al-Mansour has made history (Brian Anderson/REX/Shutterstock)
Haifaa Al-Mansour has made history (Brian Anderson/REX/Shutterstock)

By Laura Harding, Press Association Senior Entertainment Correspondent

Saudia Arabia’s first female filmmaker has said she hopes her success has made it easier for other women to follow in her footsteps.

Haifaa Al-Mansour directed her first film Wadjda, which was nominated for a Bafta, from the inside of a van because she was not allowed to stand on the street to instruct her cast and crew.

She told the Press Association: “I watched it on screens and they gave me walkie talkie. Everybody else is outside and if the frame is not right, I talk to the DP (director of photography) and we have to be on the phone for an hour, it was like remote controlling.

“When I first started, people weren’t supportive, people like even my extended family.

“My parents and my sisters were really proud but Saudis has very big families, so they call me and say ‘Don’t say you are related, don’t say the family name’.

“It was very shameful for a woman to be in a public space, or just to appear on TV. It is immodest, women should be completely covered, they should not take positions like this, you should be always at home raising the children.

“But now it’s totally changed, people are very proud, and there is more appreciation for art in general.”

Al-Mansour has now directed her first Western film about the author Mary Shelley, and said she hopes she has made things easier for the women that follow her.

“I hope they don’t face the challenge that I did, they are not being forced to film from a van, they are not unable to raise funding for the film.

“So I hope the success of those films will allow them to make more films.”

However, the director said the industry is still a tougher place for women from diverse backgrounds.

She said: “For diverse women and women of colour, of course it is harder.

“I just don’t fulfil the image they have in their subconscious of what is a director, or how a director looks.

“It is hard, and especially hard if you are a woman, and if you are a woman of colour it’s just like you have so much, so much more to prove and a woman with an accent like me, that’s even more! But it is changing,

“There is more acceptance and there is a crack.

“It is still a struggle and you have to reinvest into yourself and work hard but there is hope and there are opportunities if you fight for them.”

Al-Mansour said her own struggles made her feel a kinship with Frankenstein author Shelley, played in the film by Elle Fanning.

“She goes to a publisher and they’re like no way, we don’t want your name on it.

“For me, coming from Saudi Arabia,  I understand that it hurts when you are creatively dismissed and taken for granted just because of your gender.

“I just feel like it is really sad. However, I feel that we are living in a feminist reawakening.

“With the Me Too movement and Time’s Up, I think it’s very important to create, first of all, a safe place for a woman to work without being harassed, and also without being pigeonholed in a certain kind of work.

“When I started making films people would ridicule me in a newspaper, they would ask those old men ‘what do you think, we have a filmmaker who does shorts, a women?’

“They will ridicule me, be dismissive, and it hurt me at the time, but it did not stop me.

“Women always will have obstacles and people will doubt them throughout their careers, but it is important to keep focused and not to be angry.

“It is very frustrating to deal with conservative societies, but I think it pays off.

“Change doesn’t come overnight, and it needs to be coming from within, and it is hard and it takes time.”

Mary Shelley is in UK cinemas now.

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