Haifaa al-Mansour interview: Saudi Arabia's first female film director talks about new release Wadjda

Saudi Arabia's first female film director says: 'I don’t want to clash with the culture, or make people angry'

Women in Saudi Arabia are still forbidden to drive and cannot go out in public unless accompanied by a male guardian. But Haifaa al-Mansour, the country’s first female film director, says things are changing in the conservative kingdom. Her award-winning film, Wadjda, about a schoolgirl who wants to ride a bike, hits UK cinemas on 19 July.

Q. Did you set out to become Saudi Arabia’s first woman film maker?

A. No, it wasn’t my goal to be the first female Saudi film maker, or even to make the first [feature] film [entirely shot] in Saudi. I started making films when I was working as a young woman in Saudi. I had been trying to assert myself and find my voice, but the culture is such that women are invisible, they don’t matter. It wasn’t anything against me specifically, but I felt so low. I wanted a hobby to help cope with the situation, so I made a short film called Who? with my brothers and sisters.

It was a thriller about a serial killer who was disguised as a woman [in a burka] and he goes from house to house killing women. It was about identity – if women in Saudi are all completely covered, how do we know who’s who? And for me, it is very important that women should be proud of their identity. There was a debate at the time about identification cards, which had just been introduced. A lot of women were hesitant to go and get their cards because their faces would be on it, but they want to be covered. It shows some irony about the culture.

Part of what drives change is the [desire] to be happy. That is how change will happen, not because ‘I want to be the first female film maker’. That approach aims to bring change from top-down, but I think it needs to come from the grass roots.       

I knew a woman making a film in Saudi would get attention as a political event. But it was most important to me to make a good film.

Q. Did you set out to spark debate?

A. I try to be respectful. I want people in Saudi to accept the film, I don’t want to clash with the culture, or make people angry. I want to be part of the journey taking place in the Kingdom at the moment, opening it up, that is exciting to me.

Q. What was your inspiration for the film?

A. I wanted to make a film about my hometown – a small town in Saudi Arabia called Zulfi, near Riyadh – and my experiences as a child growing up there. I wanted to make points about my culture in a way that is not too radical. A bicycle is not intimidating – it’s a toy – but it has a lot of modern connotations of acceleration, being on top of one’s destiny. For me it represents how a woman should be.

Q. Is it autobiographical?

A. I come from a very traditional background. My parents are small town people, we were not rich, we never grew up travelling regularly to the West or anything like that. But they were liberal in the sense that I never experienced anything like Wadjda [played by schoolgirl Waad Mohammed].

I was never told ‘you can’t do this and you can’t do that’ at home. But when I stood outside in the street, or school, I was confronted with a different reality. There are similarities in that I went to public school and I used to wear sneakers under my dress, but I wasn’t as sassy as she is.

Q. Have you been surprised by the reaction to the film?

A. I have been overwhelmed – I’m so excited, I’m living every film makers’ dream. When I was writing the story five years ago, it took so long to find producers - we could not find funding from the Middle East because people did not believe in a story like this. Subtle doesn’t sell in the Middle East. They wanted more melodrama, they wanted something more [punchy], but I wanted something that was more reflective of reality.

Saudi is a conservative place and there were some people were against a woman making a film who didn’t like it, but overall, it was received very well.

Q. What were the most challenging things about making Wadjda?

A. Of course, the culture. We had permission to shoot but when you actually try to start filming, ordinary people don’t understand film and it makes them nervous. A lot of the neighbourhoods in Saudi are very conservative, they don’t want cameras around and they would chase us out. But other places were very good about it. Also, the country is very segregated [for men and women]. I could not be outside with the actors, I had to be in a van using a walkie-talkie to direct, because men and women are not supposed to mix in the workplace, especially in public. We were going against the trend.

Q. Since you made Wadjda in 2012, rules in Saudi Arabia have been slightly relaxed to allow women to ride bikes, although only in parks and when accompanied by a male guardian…

A. Yes, that’s great, right? We should be happy that changes like this are taking place. I know they seem like they are small and they don’t mean much, but it shows that attitudes towards women are changing, and women are getting more liberties, even if it is very slowly. There is still a long, long way to go, but hopefully things like this pave the way for bigger changes.

Q. Do you think your film has helped change attitudes?

A. Of course. I think though film and arts may not have direct impact, they create an atmosphere. I want the arts [in Saudi] to create an atmosphere of tolerance, that is what it’s for.

Q. After the Arab Spring protests in 2011, there was a feeling that women in the Middle East would be more empowered, do you think that is the case?

A. I think it is very sad what is happening in the Arab world – particularly in Egypt. In the revolution, women were partners with men, but [in the aftermath] they were marginalised. Places where women once enjoyed a lot of liberties, like Tunisia, those liberties are being lost. Those countries are going backwards when it comes to women’s rights and freedom of expression. It is very sad and shocking.

But in places like Saudi, the fact that the government is more stable helps, and more liberties are being offered every day. It is moving away from being so conservative to being a little more moderate and open. Earlier this year women were appointed to the Shura Council [first time in country's history that women have been able to hold any political office], last year Saudi women competed in the Olympics, next year women in Saudi will start voting. As a Saudi woman I would love to see more change at a faster pace, but it is good that these things are happening.

Q. In Wadjda, it feels as though one of the messages is that women must take responsibility for their own independence. Do you think that’s true?

A. Absolutely. I don’t think women who are aggressive and fighting with everyone will achieve it. I think it is about women being assertive and having a career and pursuing a dream – that is what will change things in Saudi. Saudi is a very tribal and conservative place, if women go out there and are aggressive and screaming ‘I want to do this’ they will be shunned. People will not hear them. It is better to take a long road, and work day by day, to change the situation.

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London