Finding the Voice of the Film: Interview with Haifaa Al Monsour, Director of ‘Wadjda’


Wadjda tells the story of a girl who wants a bicycle. Beginning with this seemingly simple premise, Haifaa Al Monsour — Saudi Arabia’s first woman filmmaker — follows a determined 10-year-old as she fights a system where such a desire is forbidden. Al Monsoor’s film offers details of Wadjda’s life at home, at school, and on the streets of Riyadh.

Accepted into Dubai International Film Festival’s Interchange program, Al Monsoor worked on her screenplay with the TorinoFilmLab, then developed the film with the Berlin-based production company, Razor Films. Wadjda premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival, then travelled to the Telluride Film Festival, where Sony Pictures acquired the North American rights. It won the award for Best Arabic Feature at Dubai International Film Festival at the end of 2012. Al Monsour sat down with PopMatters in Torino when her film was shown at the Torino Film Festival. The film opens in select theaters in the United States on 13 September.

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PopMatters: How far along was the film when TorinoFilmLab selected it for development?

Haifaa Al Monsour: I did their interchange and the collaboration with the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF). I think I was into the second draft, so I already had a full script. But it still had to go through a lot of changes at that point. They were with me to help find “the voice,” the voice of the film. I was trying to finalize a draft to show to producers. After that, I went to Sundance. They also did a great job in helping me. The Americans are really all about structure.

How was this helpful?

It was really good for me, for my first script to have structure and with TorinoFilmLab too. I had structure, honestly, but sometimes you don’t really know where to turn and they really helped a lot with these things.

How did you work out how to represent the complexity of Saudi women’s situations through an apparently simple story about a girl who wants a bicycle?

I wanted to give a human face to an intellectual debate, a story where people can relate and also understand. The film tells a big story as well as a small one, a story of emotions that some of the protagonists have had, a girl and her mother, the life of characters within the society. I don’t believe people want to see a film as a lesson, but they want to experience an adventure that is touching and inspirational. It was important for me that the story be an accurate portrait of the situation for women in Saudi Arabia and that the characters were believable as ordinary people who need to move around in a particular society, in the only way that they know.

I understand that this story has some elements to it that are personal, though it is not autobiographical.

It really wasn’t my story. I come from a small town. I’m one of 12, my parents had 12 kids. But they were very liberal and I never had the problem of not being able to ride a bicycle, per se, or not being able to do the things that I wanted. But a lot of girls I went to school with didn’t have choices or the chance to do certain things. I am not very married to my ideas. I always like to listen. As a filmmaker you have to open up, because a part of you wants to have control of everything. It’s really important to relax and enjoy the people [working with you]. After all, those people are as invested as you are and they want you to be genuine. They want you to succeed. When you succeed, they succeed. It’s very important for a filmmaker to relax and many don’t.

Do you feel you were able to remain true to your original vision?

Yes. They enhanced my vision. In the final scene, for example, I wanted a powerful scene. I wanted to tell this story. I knew that this was what I wanted but I didn’t know how to achieve it. I did a lot of the research. I worked with the editors, I talked to them. I gathered a lot of ideas. They help you achieve your vision.

From that second version of your script to what we see up on the screen, how did your film transform?

The film changed a lot. At the beginning, the film was very sad; in the first draft, the mother died. One thing that helped is, I saw a film that was not very good and it had a very similar outcome. That made me realize some things. It’s very important to watch other films, good and bad, and understand what you should and shouldn’t do. The film changed a lot. I have to thank the script editors and TorinoLab because they believed in me. They invested in and worked with me. In fact the relationship between me and my mentor was very sacred and very valuable. I hope other filmmakers understand this. Those people are always interested in your success. I feel like I learned a lot from them.

While there are some strong females in the film — the mother mom (Reem Abdullah), the headmistress (Ahd), Wadjda (Waad Mohammed)– there are also some sensitive males too, such as the boy Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani) and the bicycle shop owner.

Even the father (Sultan Al Assaf) was not all bad: he really loved his daughter. These people, both men and women, have the same social pressures. Men are victims as much as women in Saudi. And it’s not that you are either bad or you are good. Obviously it’s much more complex. If you import a system that makes people look only a certain way, then it’s difficult to inspire or involve viewers. People in real life are good, they have many sides, many dimensions.

I’m curious about how people think about the word “feminism” in Saudi now.

They don’t know the concept very well. The word is not really used, seeing as the movement didn’t actually develop there. So people don’t want to say it. They’re not fully accepting of feminism. I remember when I was studying at the American University in Cairo, I would say I was from Saudi and that I didn’t know about certain things since I was from a small village. At the university, there were a lot of people more advanced than me. I was discovering the world, coming from that small, secluded place where I grew up. Some people were so upset about feminism. And initially I was like, “But why? What is that? What’s happening?” They sometimes get passionate. I think feminist literature produced a lot of things that are important for women, empowering for women. I embrace it and I don’t have any problems with it.

Are there men who are feminists?

In Saudi? I don’t know. There’s a lot of, well, not feminists, per se. There is a certain structure so you have to act a certain way. But there are many who are pro-women, who empower women and give them more chances. They advocate for them and respect them. And then there are others who may not know about feminism.

I understand that in making the film, you sometimes had to direct from inside a van. Did you know about that possibility in advance or did you find out at the last minute?

I knew in advance that it might come up. We wanted to accept the culture to make the film. But then we were making a film in a culture that is conservative and people were worried about the film and about being filmed, about what’s legal and all that. We didn’t want to have women in danger or to be in conflict with the culture. In Saudi, some areas are segregated and some environments are mixed. You just wouldn’t find a woman in the middle of the street and we didn’t want to attract attention.

It was very hard for me not to be with my actors, some of them [acting] for the first time. I had to see [what they were doing] through a monitor. But it was really important for me to make the film in Saudi. So if there was an obstacle, then we tried to overcome. I don’t like to say it just to be bold, but I think it’s always good to have situations of confrontation. And that is the only way to go about it. So yeah, it was difficult, but it was good somehow.

Having grown up in a small town and also a country without movie theaters, how did you come to discover cinema and decide to pursue this profession?

I don’t want to seem like we were completely isolated from the outside world, but we were not a cosmopolitan family either. Even though my parents had travelled a lot, while I was growing up, we only took a few small trips. All of my childhood took place around our small town. The concept of the big world ended in the city that was a few hours away. The world beyond that seemed to be very distant and out of my reach. I always read a lot and saw films and wanted to take part, in some way, in a world that was bigger. Saudi Arabia is a country without movie theaters and cinema isn’t allowed. But my father always found a way to make cinema accessible and we had evenings where we would watch films together. I loved movies so much, but I never thought I would become a director, not to mention the first woman director in Saudi.

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