The filmmaker from Saudi Arabia is in her 40's and has become a regular guest at major international festivals. From Dubai to Tribeca and from Venice to Cannes, she moves continuously between screenings of her film Wadjda or sits on juries.
Before Haifaa Al-Mansour rose to fame, Saudi Arabia did not have a female filmmaker and since the 1970s, movie theatres ceased to exist in the kingdom. As such, Al-Mansour is the first Saudi woman to prove that despite many prohibitions, it is still possible to dream and challenge the standards.
Multi-award winning film Wadjda (2013) is her best known work, coming from a filmmaker who always focuses on social aspects – particularly women's issues – of her country, and who continues to challenge the conservative minds of Saudi Arabia.
"The life conditions of a Saudi woman are – and will remain – my main theme and my creative mission. I know a lot about it and I would never hesitate to expose many delicate and thorny realities, experienced quietly by Saudi women, who are victims of segregation deprived of any rationale," Al-Mansour tells Ahram Online with a calm yet determined tone.
"In my work, I do not aim at telling the stories filled with tears, I do not aim at representing women as the scapegoats. I want to show exactly the opposite: women who are strong and successful," she continues.
Carrying a name that corresponds to her character – since in Arabic language Al-Mansour means 'victorious' – the filmmaker projects the boundless energy, as she talks about her family, the future of her country, but also about her professional dreams and ambitions.
The eighth child in a family of 12 children, Al-Mansour grew up in Al-Hasa (also known as Al-Ahsa), a quiet region covered by oases in eastern Saudi Arabia. Her father, Abdel-Rahman Al-Mansour, a legal advisor and a renowned poet, and her mother Bahia Al-Suwaiyegh, a social services' assistant, spared no effort regularly exposing their children to different kinds of arts. But becoming a filmmaker was out of the question.
"My father was very open-minded. He and my mother have always been giving us the freedom to develop as individuals. They encouraged their daughters to pursue their education yet within the limits imposed on women inside the kingdom. I have never suffered from the constraints experienced by almost all of my girlfriends in their families."
Her mother wanted the twelve children to become doctors, a dream that probably seemed impossible.
"In fact, four of us met her expectations, but not me," Al-Mansour says smiling.
"I tried to become an engineer. Again, I failed. So I went to study English literature in Egypt, where I got my degree in comparative literature from the American University of Cairo. When I returned to Saudi Arabia, I began working in an oil company where I taught English and Arabic. The company had a mixed culture, something that is rare in my country."
She returned in the late 1990s, when for a Saudi woman, the salvation or honour did not exist without abaya (a garment worn by women, covering them from head to toe).
"Invisible as a woman, I felt very unhappy and I had problems defining myself. Nobody listened to me, no one thought a woman could have another life than the one in the shadows."
It didn't take Al-Mansour long to discover cinema, first through VHS tapes.
"The Saudis are big consumers of movies in private. During my childhood I was especially following films with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Indian musicals and of course the American blockbusters. I was too young however to put my foot in the video store, a place which had a sign 'women not allowed' on its door."
Al-Mansour recalls that the VHS tape seller would come out on the sidewalk so she could choose the films from his list and then he would hand them to her secretly.
"One day, the petroleum media department where I worked asked me to make a video about their activities. This is when I started learning to shoot and edit films."
This was Al-Mansour's first experience behind the camera.
Naturally, no one expected that this assignment would in fact push Al-Mansour towards the long meanders forbidden for the young girls.
"I began shooting a short film called Who? in which a serial killer is disguised as a veiled woman. I did it with a small DV camera. My family and my friends helped me by offering suggestions about the script, costumes and lighting. I remember we were shooting at dawn to avoid trouble. My sister took care of the light, my nephew played the boy in the movie, while my brother was the criminal," Al-Mansour recalls.
To the surprise of all, the film was selected at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
"For the first time, I felt that there are people who were interested in what I think, and who seek to know my opinion. For the first time, I felt that I exist."
Since that moment, Al-Mansour was surrounded by the world of film, cameras and editing. Yet above all, she experienced self-realisation.
She made two other short films, Al-Rahil Al-Murr (Bereavement of the Fledgling, 2003) and Ana Wa Al-Akhar (The Only Way Out, 2004). The first attempts were welcomed, and Al-Mansour, who by this time had caught the cinema virus, made her first documentary, Woman Without Shadows (2005), a film that looks into the lives of women of different generations in her hometown.
Woman Without Shadows was screened in 17 festivals, and at the Embassy of the United States in Riyadh. It was there that Al-Mansour met her husband, Bradley Neimann, an American diplomat.
Al-Mansour decided to develop her skills and went to do her masters of cinema in Sydney, where her husband was stationed. Soon to be a mother of two and pursuing her cinema studies, she began discovering the films of Iranian filmmakers, including Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. She learned how, from their homes, they played with the censorship. No wonder they soon became Al-Mansour's heroes.
It was also in Sydney that she outlined the scenario of what would become Wadjda, the story of a twelve year old girl who is desperate to buy a green bike which will allow her to race her friend, Abdallah.
Considered a threat to the virtue of the young girls, bicycles are reserved for men only in Saudi Arabia. Although she grew up in a conservative environment, Wadjda is full of life. Her mother refused to give her money for the bike, so Wadjda decided to participate in the Quranic recitation competition organised by her school in which a winner is given a financial reward. Wadjda wins and the sum was enough for her to buy a bicycle.
"In Sydney, I watched an Italian film Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) by Vittorio De Sica. I realised that a whole film can be built around a bike. On the other hand, I am also inspired by my niece who wanted to play football but my brother who is very conservative did not allow her," Al-Mansour explains.
But Wadjda is not autobiographical, she continues.
"I wish I had the same audacity as Wadjda. I was much more timid. As Wadjda, I belong to the world of women among whom I grew up. So I decided to make an honest and truthful film in which I can include bits from my own life," the filmmaker reveals.
Al-Mansour explains that the bicycle remains a metaphor for an unrealised dream- it represents freedom and movement and on different levels, physical and social.
"One day, my father went to buy bicycles for two of my brothers. I wanted a bicycle as well so despite the critical look of the seller, he decided to get one for me too. My father was always giving me strength to follow my dreams."
During the filming of some scenes of her film in the streets of the capital, Riyadh, she had to sometimes direct the actors via a walkie-talkie, from inside a van, to avoid unexpected interruptions.
"Saudi society has slowly begun to open up- though the process is very slow. Some changes are palpable: for instance I was shooting Wadjda with permission from the authorities. Their approval was important as I did not want to object to power. Equally, my script respects all societal traditions. It is important to work from within the system and not against it," she comments.
Two years after its release, and with screenings in over 15 international festivals, Wadjda continues to create a buzz.
Yet, despite the overwhelming success, Al-Mansour maintains her balance. "I seek no heroism. I can't say if I'm a pioneer. What I know is that many women, and men as well, act like me to help the society progress."
She continues to talk about the changes inside the kingdom. "Recently, several women were elected for the Saudi parliament; we also had sportswomen take part in the 2012 Olympic Games. Our government started offering scholarships – for men and women – to study abroad. Those are indications that the kingdom is slowly opening to the world, even if change takes place slowly and gradually."
Al-Mansour continues to pursue her cinema career, and is not willing to slow down any time soon. Her new film titled A Storm in the Stars is currently in the pre-production stage.
"There are still many stories to tell about my country," she concludes.