Saudi's First Female Filmmaker on Fighting the World to Find Your Own Voice

Haifaa al-Mansour tackles sexism and the intellectual dismissal of women in her new film about the mother of sci-fi, "Mary Shelley."

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May 15 2018, 2:48pm

Photo by Tiziana Fabi via Getty Images

Haifaa al-Mansour is in the business of breaking ground. Her debut film, Wadjda, was the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the country’s first submission to the Oscars. And al-Mansour, incredibly enough, is the very first female Saudi filmmaker. Her second film, Mary Shelley (opening May 25), explores the origins of Frankenstein, putting the monster’s female creator (played by Elle Fanning) squarely at the center of the narrative. We follow her as she falls in and out of love, navigating the maelstrom of grief and loss from which she birthed the novel often credited as the first-ever work of science fiction.

After studying comparative literature at The American University in Cairo, al-Mansour dove into film, directing three shorts and a documentary before creating Wadjda. Both Wadjda and Mary Shelley are coming-of-age stories centering young women, and by the sound of it, women’s voices are at the forefront of al-Mansour’s mind.

In a conversation at IFC’s New York office, al-Mansour tells Broadly about the surprising connections she found between Mary Shelley’s life in conservative England and her life as a Saudi woman today.

BROADLY: When did you first read Frankenstein , and when, after that, did you become acquainted with Mary Shelley’s story?
HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: I’d known the monster since I was a kid because of cartoons. I read Frankenstein as a teenager, maybe in Arabic, translated. But I really read it in college. I studied literature, so we studied women writers, and I didn’t stop on Mary Shelley. I discussed the book, I wrote a paper, and my life continued. I knew that she had kids and miscarriages and all that, but she was a distant figure for me. When they sent me the script, I was really surprised because I’m Saudi and this is an English period piece. But I read it, and I found an amazing connection with the character, because she grew up when England was conservative, and they wanted her to marry a certain way, to be in a certain way, very much like Saudi to a certain degree. It was remarkable to me that she ended up writing something very masculine, very philosophical—she was not only talking about love and marriage and things you’d expect from young women. She’d talk about existence and her struggle finding her voice, and her struggle with loss. That is when I got really close to her, and started to read her letters, and started to understand her more as a person.

I did some additional writing in the script. For example, when she goes to the publisher, when they told her not to be a woman, when I was reading it, I thought, “What? She tried to publish it and people told her not to?” I felt that it was very important to bring in her struggle as a woman to assert her voice, because it is a struggle for women even now. It’s still a very modern idea that women get dismissed intellectually.

Your debut and this film are both coming-of-age stories for women. What is it about these stories that attracted you?
I just love those stories. I love young women who are fighting the world to find their own voice. I find myself reluctant to accept victims. I know women, we go through a lot of hard stuff; I’m from Saudi Arabia, I know exactly what it means to be discriminated against, or to deal with a sexist world. But I feel we cannot just complain. I think the way to succeed is to just march up to life and punch it. [laughs] And that’s it! We need to move forward. That is what moves me.

I know your next movie, Nappily Ever After , is in post-production. Can you tell me anything about that movie?
It is set in the African-American community, and it’s based on a book. It’s contemporary, and it’s about an African-American woman who comes from a very solid middle-class background, where her mom wants her to look right and proper, and do her hair every day, and get married to a doctor. That’s like my mom exactly. And she tried. She went into advertising, she dated a British doctor—she did everything. But things didn’t work the way the way she thought they would. She wasn’t happy. Her life wasn’t as satisfying as she’d thought, and she goes into an emotional crisis and shaves her head, shaves off all her hair, and lets it grow naturally, and embraces who she is. I think it’s very important for us women to love ourselves and love the way we look, and we don’t all have to look European—very tall, very blonde, very thin. Even European women don’t have to fit into just one mold. There’s beauty in everything, and it’s very important to embrace our roots.

It was fun for me, and we worked with Sanaa Lathan, who is an amazing actress. When we did the shaving scene, she told me, “Haifaa, I’ll take it.” Yes! Sanaa! Take it! “I’ll say cut.” Yes, you say cut! And it was wonderful! I was crying. She gave me all these emotions, this range of joy and happiness, and sadness, and confusion. Everything in that scene. And it was wonderful to see an actress who just puts it all out there. Sometimes they’re reluctant, but that was just— fwoom. And it feels it, on the screen.

It seemed obvious why you took that project when you were describing it. I was hooked on one point you made: Does your mom still nag you like that? What does she make of your film career?
She’s really proud. In my hometown, they did a small film festival for short films. They honored me as a figure, and I wasn’t able to go, so she went with my sister, and they gave her the trophy. She really loved it. She appreciates it, and she’s really happy that I’m married now with two kids. She’s like, “My job is done.”

You’re currently working on another film, right?
I’m working on an animated film called Miss Camel with ShadowMachine. Hopefully we’ll get financing and we’ll move on that. But I’m going back to Saudi, also, to shoot a film called The Perfect Candidate, about a young woman entering politics. Saudi Arabia is really changing and opening up, and there’s so much to do there, so I’m really excited about it.

Broadly speaking, do you have a dream project in mind that you’d like to do?
Yeah, I’d like to do Superwoman. A female superhero. That would be amazing. I’m really proud of all the female filmmakers and the stars who are breaking ground for women in that big genre. Wonder Woman was an amazing move forward, proving that women can handle big budgets and that a female star can carry a movie, and can break ceilings. That was a really amazing achievement in the film industry. We’re always like, “We do independent films, we do women’s voices films.” It’s nice to see women breaking into bigger realms. I’m talking real money! [laughs]

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Do you have a favorite part of the directing process?
Working with actors is my favorite. I really enjoy working with them to bring the heart of the scene, and getting the emotions right, and charging the scenes with the right feelings. Even when I was a kid, I used to write plays for school, and I really enjoyed talking to the girls.

Do you have a shortlist of people you’d want to work with in that capacity?
I love working with strong women. I love Elle, I would love to work with Elle again. Maisie Williams, Bel Powley—I think they’re wonderful. We should do a superhero film!