From Small Town to Big Buzz: How Wadjda Became the Realization of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Hollywood Dreams
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour didn’t have access to movie theaters (there aren’t any), but she was still raised on a Hollywood diet. She ate up all the popular cinema she could via home video, and began forging a long-term love affair with the kind of infectious traditions found in big-budget American films. Those same traditions have spilled over, somewhat, into Wadjda, Al-Mansour’s groundbreaking debut feature, which is both the first movie filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first feature to be helmed by a female Saudi director. An arthouse release that premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and has since been successfully cruising the festival circuit, Wadjda is, of course, not a Hollywood film, but, in many ways, it’s a Cinderella story for its maker and its title character. Wadjda is a 10-year-old Saudi girl living under traditional constraints, whose quest to acquire a boys-only bicycle signifies her self-actualization. Similarly, Al-Mansour battled constraints throughout the entirety of Wadjda‘s production process, from scouring the globe for additional funding to directing in hiding via walkie-talkie while shooting on location. In the midst of her movie’s growing buzz, Al-Mansour sat down to discuss with Filmmaker Saudi shooting conditions, how a balloon man can be useful in a pinch, and how her childhood trips to video stores have paid off.
Filmmaker: So, Wadjda can lay claim to a lot of firsts, specifically in regard to where it was made and who made it. Did making a statement with the film feel just as important as telling the story within it?
Al-Mansour: [Making a statement is] important, but not as important as telling the film’s story. I think one led to the other. I wanted to tell an authentic story, and that is why we went to film in Saudi, so telling the story is kind of what made that happen. I think the most important thing is to tell a story that is engaging, and to entertain. I grew up watching a lot of blockbusters, not “high cinema.” And maybe I shouldn’t admit that to Filmmaker [laughs], but it has really made me feel the power of uplift, and how to touch people, and, for me, it has always made me want to tell a story of that type. I always wanted to entertain while telling things about my culture.
Filmmaker: Is that why you changed the final cut? Because I read that your initial take on the film was a little tougher, and a little less uplifting.
Al-Mansour: The humor was always there and everything, but towards the end, yes. The mother died at the end [originally]. It was darker at first, and there was a tone problem. And I’m very grateful for Sundance [Screenwriters Labs] because they set me on the right track. I was so adamant not to change, but they set me on the right path. They told me, “It doesn’t work; it has a tonal problem.” And I was going, right away, from the Sundance Lab in the Middle East to the Shasha Grant [in Abu Dhabi], which was $100,000 just for pitching the film. And I woke up one night and I was like, “Alright, it’s a lot of money. Maybe I should reconsider!” [Laughs] So I wrote them the [new] ending, and I told it to my husband, and he was like, “Alright!” Because I told him the story, and he was moved, and I was moved when I was telling him. So it was a good continuation.
Filmmaker: Coming off of Sundance Lab, I understand that a lot of the time it took to make the film involved securing financing. And you ended up with some German financing, specifically Razor Film. Did you reach out to them because they’d financed other Middle Eastern-themed titles like Paradise Now?
Al-Mansour: Yeah, definitely. In Saudi, we don’t have theaters, and the Arab world is very traditional when it comes to distribution. So when I had money to do the film before, it was only Saudi money, and the market would only be open for the Arab world. And the Arab world is not open to a film coming from Saudi Arabia; it’s only open for films coming from Hollywood, and India — maybe Bollywood and Egypt. But nothing outside of that. There’s no market for what you’d call “arthouse” or “foreign film.” So that is why I started looking for more funding from different places, and I made a list of all the companies in the West that did films in the Middle East. I sent emails describing the film I was writing to “info@…whatever company,” and usually you don’t get a response to those. But Razor was kind enough to ask me to send a synopsis, so I did. But, yeah, it was difficult to find the money.
Filmmaker: During production, I understand you often had to hide in a van so as to not be seen among the male crew members. Was that scary at all, or just frustrating?
Al-Mansour: No, it was more frustrating, not scary. Saudi’s segregated, so men and women are not supposed to work outside [together]. People would not be happy to see a woman with a crew made up of men. So I always had to be in the van, with a walkie-talkie and the monitor.
Filmmaker: What would have happened had you not stayed in the van?
Al-Mansour: People would have interrupted and people would have asked. It is not accepted.
Filmmaker: But beyond your presence being frowned upon, could you have had your production shut down?
Al-Mansour: Police could have come and asked, and maybe conservative people would have tried to make it stop. We did have permission to shoot, but I didn’t want to steer this kind of clash with this society where I was making the film. It would have definitely slowed us, and I felt it was very important to respect the laws and, specifically, the social conduct. In Saudi, there are no written laws about a lot of things; it is about how people just perceive what is right and wrong. For me, it was very important to respect that. I’m not an activist. I respect that, as that is its own kind of realm, but I am more of an artist making a film. And of course I want to say things about life, and empowering people, but the way I do it is more about engaging with my art than engaging with trying to directly clash with the [locals]. It was very frustrating, though. I had to keep screaming at everybody from the van: “Do this! Do that!” But it was worth it.
Filmmaker: Were there ever times amid the process when you felt that maybe it wasn’t worth it?
Al-Mansour: No. But there were times when I felt that we’d never finish. I felt like I would bring Razor, a good company, to bankruptcy! [Laughs] And by mid-shoot, we were so behind, and I was asked to cut part of the script. And I didn’t know what to cut, or what to do. It was so overwhelming. That was scary.
Filmmaker: So how long did it take to actually shoot?
Al-Mansour: We shot in about seven weeks.
Filmmaker: And what was a typical day like on set? Was there such thing as a typical day?
Al-Mansour: Umm…no, it was often different. And we had Germans, you know? The Germans came in with their Excel sheets and everything printed, like “10:09! 10:04!” [Laughs]
Al-Mansour: Organized, yeah. And, you know, Saudis, or Arabs in general, our work ethic is, relatively, not the same. So, the first week, [the Germans] showed up at 4 a.m. to do their thing, and nobody else showed up, and it was tough to get on the same page. But I think the Germans learned to relax and trust the system, and Saudis also tried to be more organized and write things — not have everything be oral.
Filmmaker: So how much of the crew was German and how much of the crew was Saudi?
Al-Mansour: It was fairly mixed. About 50/50. We don’t have people who are trained in cinema in Saudi, so the d.p. was German, etc. And we paired them a lot with Saudis. It was amazing to see. They became friends after a while.
Filmmaker: Were there things or locations that you wanted to shoot but couldn’t because of societal limitations?
Al-Mansour: It was tough for us sometimes to get access to locations. We were supposed to shoot at a place like the mall, for example. And we prepared, and we rented a shop in the mall to do the shooting during the day, and all of a sudden the mall owner calls us and is like, “No. I don’t feel right. I’m worried. It’s film. I don’t understand it.” And we didn’t have time to find another place. Luckily, we had a very good Saudi line producer who found us another mall, and we put everything together and rented another shop. Oh, and there was a Starbucks nearby, and we were not allowed to show logos or brands. So we had the guy who sells the balloons in the mall standing, all the time, while were shooting, so that he’d block the brand. [Laughs] So we had days like that. Chaotic, a little.
Filmmaker: Was there a day or an incident that proved the most daunting or difficult?
Al-Mansour: Well, I don’t want to give too much [to those who’ve not seen the film] away about which scene it was, but there was one scene where I wanted a landscape that was open, where it’s an urban place and then there’s, like, a desert, and a highway. And we looked around and there was only one neighborhood that had it, and it was very conservative. And the scene required a lot of very public shooting, and that was very scary because we had to shoot it very quickly, and people were getting angry and trying to stop us.
Filmmaker: I wanted to go back to the lack of theaters in Saudi Arabia, and your own history of film viewing. Is it hard for someone to become a film buff with these limitations, or does it just make you that much hungrier for it? I read that your dad used to bring home a lot of videos.
Al-Mansour: Yes. A lot of popular cinema — Hollywood, Chinese. Jackie Chan was big. [Laughs] All the mainstream kind of stuff. Some Indian and Egyptian.
Filmmaker: And he’s just picking these up at Blockbuster?
Al-Mansour: Yeah, video stores. And I remember going to video stores when I was about 12 years old, but they wouldn’t let me in because it was almost like a corrupt place. So women are not allowed in. there’s a sign saying that women have to stay outside. So [the employees bring me the catalog, and I’d check off the titles I want, and then they’d go inside and bring them back. But I think there are a lot of young people in Saudi who love film. Because film is not allowed, and it’s almost like because it’s not allowed, we love it. And access to film is not easy. You can find Hollywood blockbusters, but you cannot find, for example, independent films. All of that is very difficult to come across in Saudi, but it is becoming easier because of the Internet.
Filmmaker: I read that you went to school in Cairo and that you also lived in Sydney for a time. Do you think that you could have made this movie had you never left Saudi, and simply learned about film via, say, the Internet, and somehow had equipment brought in, but never traveled?
Al-Mansour: Well, I think studying and [travel] allowed me to reflect on my culture. A lot. I’m from a small town in Saudi, and I went to an American university in Cairo, which had a more liberal education. So I got access to philosophy and things like that, so I think it changed me as a person. It made me see the world differently, especially at that age when your former ideas are changing and your new ideas about the world are being formed. And I always felt like an outsider, even back home, so that gave me the chance to see how bizarre, and interesting, and ironic some situations are. My family is very liberal, but they still stick to these traditions, and my extended family is very conservative, so it was almost as if we never quite fit. So [traveling] gave me a lot of insight, and allowed me to reflect on those things about my culture and feel things differently.
Filmmaker: And what advice would you give to novice filmmakers — or any filmmakers — who are facing struggles in getting their work made.
Al-Mansour: To stick with it. Not to give up. For me it was very important to go to places like Sundance, and apply to those Labs, and have people invest in the journey — not to feel alone. I would tell them to align themselves with places that help artists, and just don’t give up! And it’s hard. It took me so long. I can’t even tell you how many rejection letters I have. [Laughs] But it is the nature of the business, and you have to stick with it and fight for what you believe in.