Saudi Arabia's Haifa al Mansour Fears Rise of Islamic Conservatives May Impact Filmmaking Ambitions

 

DOHA, Qatar -- Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifa al Mansour is about to do something she has spent her entire working life having done to herself by others.

The filmmaker, whose passion for cinema has seen her overcome obstacles that would have deterred most in her own country to become the very first woman to shoot a feature there, is sitting on the Doha Tribeca Film Festival's Made in Qatar jury.

Mansour told The Hollywood Reporter that she will likely pay particular attention to any female filmmaking efforts in the festival's sidebar dedicated to the endeavors of local filmmakers.

"It's hard for women from this part of the world to choose filmmaking as a career path," Mansour said. "It just isn't accepted by people here and it is a very hard thing to do because of that."

But Mansour does point to the fact that if there is "a brilliant film made by a man" she won't just dismiss it along gender lines.

DTFF's Made in Qatar section is the largest such showcase yet for the event and will guarantee festival goers a slice of Qatari life.

"I really want to see a distinct voice. As a filmmaker you have to have this and to work hard to make a film, so that's what I'm looking for."

She should know.

Growing up as the eighth child in a family of 12 "from the same father and the same mother," Mansour lived in a tiny village in Saudi Arabia, a territory where women cannot drive, vote or work with men and where movie theaters don't exist.

Gorging on DVDs of Hollywood, Bollywood, Chinese and Egyptian output her father brought home, Mansour said movies were "her window on the world" and installed her desire to make her own film.

After making short films and a documentary, she spent five years working on Wadjda with support from the Sundance Institute "who really believed in me from the word go and backed me all the way." Sony Pictures Classics picked the film up for US release in April next year.

The film recently unspooled during this year's London Film Festival, and her tale about a 12-year-old tomboy and her rebellious free spirit who wants to buy a bike has garnered critical acclaim on the festival circuit.

She said the region is changing but that Saudi remains a very "conservative Islamist state" stressing that Doha "has a more progressive government than Saudi."

Said Mansour: "This part of the world is very tribal in many many ways. Now there's in money at the Doha FIlm Institute and in Abu Dhabi [for filmmakers] for example, it is very important for people to capitalize on this and tell their stories about themselves."

But she notes that the local traditions, religion and the way people are raized across the Middle East will mean any change will come slowly and in small steps.

"We are very tribal and grow up as part of a collective people," Mansour noted. "It is hard for Saudis, Qataris and others to stand back and reflect on the stories as individuals. It's a painful process but an important one."

She also talked of the challenges facing homegrown fair to find audiences.

"At least in Saudi people always want to see my films because they want to kill me," she laughed. "But while people are very conservative they still want to see things about them and things that touch their lives."

Mansour is also concerned that certain countries which were a part of the Arab Spring are set to fall under an ever-darkening cultural cloud.

"As an artist I fear for places that had revolution,s as there is a great sense of disappointment because everyday life did not change for most people. We still see corruption and oppression," Mansour said. "It is very alarming to see conservative Islamists taking over the power bases in Morocco and Tunisia too."

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