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Haifaa al-Mansour
Haifaa al-MansourTobias Kownatzk

Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour: ‘I won’t be pigeonholed’

Following her groundbreaking debut feature Wadjda, the director turns her attention to sci-fi godmother Mary Shelley

Haifaa al-Mansour, the director of a new Mary Shelley biopic, knows a thing or two about creating art under extreme conditions. In 2012, al-Mansour shot Wadjda, the first ever feature to be made entirely in Saudi Arabia. Due to the public segregation of men and women, al-Mansour directed the movie’s outdoor scenes from inside a van, dishing out instructions to her cast and crew via walkie-talkie. In doing so, she became Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker and led Wadjda to awards success

The plot of Wadjda, if you’re unaware, follows a young girl who hatches a plan to purchase a shiny green bicycle. A few months after the film’s release, the ban on women riding bikes in Saudi Arabia was lifted. It’s taken, however, six years for al-Mansour to return with a new movie. Set in the early 19th century, Mary Shelley is a reminder to modern viewers that the genre of science-fiction was conjured up by an 18-year-old woman. Mary and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, visit Lord Byron in Geneva, and they behave like university students: idealistic, hormonally charged, and really into slam poetry. One evening, Byron challenges his guests to write a ghost story. Mary, pen in hand, feverously scribbles out what would become Frankenstein. The rest, as they say, was history – except in al-Mansour’s version, you have Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth in the lead roles.

There are echoes of Wadjda throughout Mary Shelley. In the former, a Saudi teacher informs her students that “a woman’s voice is her nakedness”. Likewise, Mary is discouraged from a writing career by her stepmother. She struggles to be taken seriously as an author in a sexist society, and many initially believe that Frankenstein has been written by Percy. The real monster isn’t Frankenstein, it’s the patriarchy. (But seriously, the real monster isn’t Frankenstein – that’s what the scientist is called.)

Last month, we met up with al-Mansour in London to chat about what drew her to Mary Shelley’s story, her memories of shooting Wadjda, and her role in Saudi Arabia’s first cinema in 35 years.

Mary Shelley felt compelled by her conservative surroundings to write Frankenstein. Is Wadjda your Frankenstein?

Haifaa al-Mansour: I’ve never thought of it that way, but yes, definitely. I sympathise with her journey, for sure. I understood what it means to be dismissed creatively. When I started making films in Saudi Arabia, cinemas were illegal and nobody was making films. I’m definitely interested in the journey of breaking away from a very conservative place.

A period drama isn’t an obvious follow-up to Wadjda. Is that what made Mary Shelley such an exciting prospect? I can imagine there are people who only want you to make a certain kind of film.

Haifaa al-Mansour: Definitely. I don’t want to be pigeonholed, and I won’t. I will rebel! For me, I didn’t intentionally try to make a period film. I was surprised when they sent me the script. But being able to connect with the character is the thing I appreciate in every script. I wanted to make an English-speaking film, coming from the foreign world, just to grow as an artist.

Do you identify with Mary Shelley’s story?

Haifaa al-Mansour: England was conservative when Mary grew up. It is by no means as conservative as Saudi Arabia, but women were still expected to behave a certain way and write in a certain way. Jane Austen was the biggest star. For Mary, to write something science-fiction and to question a lot of paradigms, it was very important. I sympathise with the story in that way: to find your own voice in a culture that pressures and moulds women.

There’s a bit of debate over whether Mary Shelley invented sci-fi. Where do you stand?

Haifaa al-Mansour: I would definitely say Mary Shelley invented sci-fi! She should be the queen of Comic-Con.

Is it important to get that message out there? Nowadays, if a film has a superhero, spaceship or dinosaur in it, it’s probably directed by a man.

Haifaa al-Mansour: Absolutely. It’s the right time now to have more female directors. Now, we see a film like Wonder Woman dominating the box office, directed by a woman, and starring a woman. They always say that guys bring more money than women, so you have to do smaller films, and the guys do the bigger films. But it’s not the story anymore. Dudes don’t bring much money. We bring a lot of money, too! We contributed to a lot of box office successes this year.

Have you spoken to any of those big studios?

Haifaa al-Mansour: No, but I think it’s time to do a studio film. It’s important to move to the next level for my career. Because women are always put in a place where they only do independent cinema. They’re not allowed to grow bigger. Or sometimes they don’t trust them to do bigger-budget films. Hopefully that situation will change.

Elle Fanning is a 21st century icon. Were there any hesitations in casting her as Mary?

Haifaa al-Mansour: No. I’ve been following Elle since Super 8. She was my first choice as an actress for the role. She has this effortlessness and elegance that she brings to every role. This role in particular could tip into being melodramatic because of the loss of a child, and lots of arguing with Percy. So I felt we needed someone like Elle who elevates the role. She did an amazing job.

Also, we wanted to shock the audiences in how young Mary was when she wrote Frankenstein. Elle was just 17-turning-18 on our film, exactly the same age as Mary. It’s important to bring that youth, so that people understand how young she was.

Mary Shelley is more adventurous than a typical period drama, and also has hints of bisexuality in Percy and Byron. Was it fun for you to shine a new light on the 19th century? 

Haifaa al-Mansour: Those people rebelled against a lot of things in their lives. They rebelled against the morality imposed on society. They chose their own way, and wanted to redefine that. We can’t all do drugs like that, or engage in so many relationships. It’s hard and exhausting. It’s something normal people can’t do, but these artists were able to take that and bring us amazing, wonderful work.

What can you say about your next two films, Nappily Ever After and The Perfect Candidate?

Haifaa al-Mansour: Nappily Ever After, we’ve finished shooting. It’s for Netflix. It’ll be out in October. It was an amazing experience. We shot it all in once, in Atlanta. It’s set in the African-American community. It’s such a wonderful story about embracing colour and curls, and embracing who we are. Sanaa Lathan is an amazing African-American actress. She did a wonderful job.

The Perfect Candidate, we will shoot in September in Saudi Arabia. It’s about a young Saudi female doctor who runs for election. I’ve written the script with my husband, Brad Niemann. I think we will mostly cast non-professionals. It’ll be very similar to Wadjda in tone. It’s a social commentary with some humour. One of my favourite films from the last year was The Square. It’s amazing how you can tell a lot with humour, and make the emotions more accessible to people.

So you’re going to audition actors soon?

Haifaa al-Mansour: Yes. But now we can put out an open casting call. With Wadjda, we couldn’t. We were just saying: “Who knows who? Do you know young girls?” “I don’t know. I’ll call my friend. I’ll call my cousin.”

“In Saudi, the young people are just out there, enjoying life. Even girls don’t wear the black abayas – they have colourful ones. You have women working in public” – Haifaa al-Mansour

How else will shooting The Perfect Candidate in Saudi Arabia compare with your experience with Wadjda?

Haifaa al-Mansour: It’s a huge difference. For one thing, the Saudi Film Fund is investing in the film. It was hard before to just find funding, because people didn’t believe in films coming from Saudi Arabia. The country was very closed. We had insurance issues. But now it’s a lot easier. People believe that we can make films in Saudi Arabia. There’s support for visas from the government. It’s a safer investment.

Saudi Arabia’s just opened its first cinema in 35 years. When will Mary Shelley screen there?

Haifaa al-Mansour: I think in August or July. I’m on the general board to oversee the development of cinema in Saudi Arabia. I was really honoured to be given that high position from the government, to foster the growth of cinema and film. I was in Saudi a few weeks ago, and it was wonderful to see how much the young people are just out there, enjoying life. Even girls don’t wear the black abayas – they have colourful ones. It’s such a new thing. You have women working in public.

So it’s a really a nice change. Saudi Arabia is really important in the Muslim world. If they are celebrating art and music, that will hopefully change the mood in that part of the world.

Six on years from Wadjda, how do you feel about the film and the impact it’s made?

Haifaa al-Mansour: I’m very proud of Wadjda. I’m very proud that Saudi Arabia nominated the film, for the first time, to the Oscars. I worked really hard with them, and I feel like I’m part of creating a cinema legacy in the country. It allowed me to make Mary Shelley, it allowed me to make Nappily Ever After.

Lastly, is it unfair that journalists, including me, have so many questions about your background? Or is it important to discuss it? 

Haifaa al-Mansour: I think it’s important. It’s what people want to know. People have a personal experience with the films. For me, it’s explaining where I come from. It’s fun, because I come from a place that people don’t know much about. I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia. How much do people know about that place? It’s fun to explain, and fun to be part of the cultural exchange between my country and the rest of the world. I feel that it’s important to know people from Saudi, and to not only see it through a political lens.

Mary Shelley opens in cinemas on July 6