Haifaa al-Mansour (Arabic: هيفاء المنصور Hayfā’a al-Manṣūr; born 10 August 1974) is a Saudi Arabian film director. She is one of the country's best-known and most controversial directors, and the first female Saudi filmmaker.
Early life and education
Haifaa al-Mansour is the eighth (out of twelve) child of the poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, who introduced her to films by video, there being no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia between 1983 and 2018. One of her favourite actors was Jackie Chan. She is from Al Zulfi but grew up in Al-Hasa. Although her town was conservative, her father would go to a Blockbuster and grab any films that were available and bring them back home for their large family to enjoy together. Since cinema was banned in Saudi Arabia, Haifaa and her family received lots of judgment and threats from the people in her conservative town, but this never stopped her father from raising her and the other children to do things they felt passionate about. Although she grew up in a liberal family with non-traditional parents, her mother still had expectations for Haifaa to have a prestigious career. Her mother really wanted her to become a doctor, but that did not work out for Haifaa. She also tried becoming an engineer, but that also did not happen.
With her father's encouragement, she studied comparative literature at The American University in Cairo. Although she enjoyed studying literature, this was not for her. She experienced disappointment from her mother since she did not become a doctor, engineer, or professor, but ultimately her mother wanted her to be happy the same way she was. Haifaa’s mother had a passion for singing, but was not allowed to be a singer growing up. Because she was non-traditional and a popular singer in the town, she would sing at gatherings and Haifaa would be so embarrassed. Over time, Haifaa learned that her mother was courageous and did not care what other people thought of her. Her mother taught her defiance, integrity, and genuineness, and that is why Haifaa eventually chased her dream. After school, Haifaa worked at an oil company and taught English, but still nothing was satisfying her craving for something she was passionate about. She later completed a master's degree in Film Studies from University of Sydney, Australia. She never thought in a million years that she would become a filmmaker one day, but felt that she could do anything she set her mind to as long as she had the support of her family, especially her father. After the first short film she made with her family about a mysterious serial killer who wore a niqāb, Haifaa was very surprised that it was accepted by a film festival. For the first time in her life, she felt that people finally noticed her and listened to her.
She began her filmmaking career with three shorts, Who?, The Bitter Journey and The Only Way Out. The Only Way Out won prizes in the United Arab Emirates and in the Netherlands. She followed these with the documentary Women Without Shadows, which deals with the hidden lives of women in Arab States of the Persian Gulf. It was shown at 17 international festivals. The film received the Golden Dagger for Best Documentary in the Muscat Film Festival and a special jury mention in the fourth Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam. Haifaa al-Mansour was a guest at the 28th Three Continents Festival in Nantes, France.
Her feature debut, Wadjda, which she wrote as well as directed, made its world premiere at the 2012 Venice Film Festival; it is the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and as of 2013, the only feature-length film made in Saudi Arabia by a female director. Wadjda tells the story of a 10-year-old girl growing up in the suburbs of Riyadh, who dreams of owning and riding a green bicycle. Wadjda took five years to be made because of the typical constraints and challenges Haifaa went through to get this film out into the world. The segregation of men and women in Saudi Arabia forced her to direct this film in a van. She would be in a tight van with a monitor and walkie-talkie yelling at people and telling them what to do. She said it was a very difficult and frustrating experience but the most important thing to her was that she was the first female Saudi Arabian filmmaker who created the first feature film, fully filmed in Saudi Arabia.The film was backed by Rotana, the film production company of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Wadjda was selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, which is the first time Saudi Arabia has submitted a film for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The project had been developed in 2009 during the Gulf screenwriting lab, a collaboration between TorinoFilmLab and Dubai International Film Festival. Seven years later, she made her fourth feature film, The Perfect Candidate, in 2019 which was the first feature film to be supported by the new national Saudi Film Council.
She did not intend that her film work focus on women's issues, but found them too important to not address. Both Who? and Women Without Shadows deal with the custom of abaya. She has received hate mail and criticism for being unreligious, which she denies. She does, however, feel that Saudi Arabia needs to take a more critical view of its culture. She also received praise from Saudis for encouraging discussion on topics usually considered taboo. Haifaa often makes films about strong, independent, and resilient women because she is that kind of woman too. Haifaa luckily had her supportive family, but those that surrounded her maintained the conservative politics in that town and condemned her for seeking film when it was haram (forbidden in Islamic religion). Regardless, she did what she loved and continued making films about women who wanted to change the way women in Saudi Arabia are perceived and what they are allowed to do.
In 2014, it was reported that Al-Mansour was to direct A Storm in the Stars, an upcoming romantic drama film about the early life of writer Mary Shelley. The film was later retitled Mary Shelley and premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
In April 2020, it was announced that she would direct Netflix's upcoming film The Selection, based on the first entry in Kiera Cass’ popular book series. In 2020, she directed an episode on The Good Lord Bird.
Style and Themes
Haifaa is a part of a film industry in Saudi Arabia that is still developing. For her, it is exciting to see how there is funding for independent filmmaking in Saudi Arabia when there were once no cinemas where Haifaa grew up. She strays away from commercial filmmaking and chooses to make “art house” films that are niche. Haifaa believes that you must build an audience around art house filmmaking to cultivate and nurture its niche community because certain film industries like the U.S. and China are very established and because mainstream films will always find their way to audiences. She puts a lot of heart and thought into her work and does not want to lecture the audience. Instead, she allows them to self-discover themselves in relation to the social-political issues she tackles in her films. Haifaa has no intention to expose or shed negative light on Muslim or Saudi Arabian culture, but she anticipates and expects the public and critics to say women should not be making films or films about women. Her films are created with the audience in mind and use a documentary approach; filming on location with non-professional actors. The majority of her films deal with the same issues and themes.
All of Haifaa’s short films and feature films are centered around a female protagonist, and the majority of her films are about how these women fight and stop at nothing to overcome their limitations as women living in Saudi Arabia. Not only do these female protagonists fight for their rights, but they are constantly faced with doubt and threats from other women, especially men. These women also experience continuous dismissal from men whenever they speak. And even when these protagonists are given the chance to do things they could not before, there is always a man that prefaces the unlikeliness of her obtaining what she wants or needs. Another common theme in Haifaa’s films is the significance of wedding parties in Saudi Arabia because they allow women to celebrate themselves without the presence of men. Moreover, she also has a great fascination with wedding singers and singing in general. Many of the women in her films often bond or share sweet moments with one another while singing. Haifaa also brings attention to the coverage and uncoverage of women and how that determines the identity of a woman. Lastly, her films show the beautiful bond between mothers, daughters, and sisters. Haifaa does not believe making a change or spreading a message needs to be through aggression, but instead through a soft-spoken and heart-warming story.
|1997||Who? (من؟)||Yes||Short film|
|2000||The Bitter Journey (الرحيل المر)||Yes||Documentary|
|2001||The Only Way Out (أنا والآخر)||Yes||Short film|
|2005||Women Without Shadows (نساء بلا الظل)||Yes||Documentary|
|2012||Wadjda (وجدة)||Yes||Feature directorial debut|
|2018||Nappily Ever After||Yes|
|2019||The Perfect Candidate||Yes|
|2019||The Society||Yes||Episode: "Putting on the Clothes"|
|2020||Motherland: Fort Salem||Yes||Episode: "Hail Beltan"|
|2020||The Good Lord Bird||Yes||Episode: "Hiving the Bees"|
|2020||The Wilds||Yes||Episode: "Day Seven"|
|2021||The L Word: Generation Q||Yes||Episodes: "Launch Party" and "Last Dance"|
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- "Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour picks up Crystal Award at Davos 2019". Arab News. 2019-01-21. Retrieved 2019-01-27.
- Kroll, Justin (2020-04-10). "Netflix to Adapt 'The Selection' Novel With Director Haifaa Al-Mansour (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved 2020-06-16.
- Petski, Denise (August 2, 2019). "Daveed Diggs & Wyatt Russell Join 'The Good Lord Bird' For Showtime – TCA". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved August 3, 2020.
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