Saudi film director, Haifaa Al Mansour is the woman behind Miu Miu’s latest movie, Wedding Singer’s Daughter, the latest installment in the fashion houses series of short-films, Women’s Tales. She talks to Sorbet about empowering women from the Middle East and why it’s so important to tell the stories of women on screen.
Q: Can you tell me about how the collaboration with Miu Miu came about?
A: They approached me. They have this series, Women’s Tales, and they were looking for female filmmakers and I’d been following them. They’d already worked with some female directors that I really respect and admire like Ava DuVernay. The work is a part of a series so when they contacted me I thought it was really cool. I love fashion so for me, this was a really cool project to be involved in the fashion world but also it’s really important to tell female stories especially during this time. It’s important women feel empowered so I was excited to be a part of it from the very beginning.
Q: Were you given complete creative freedom?
A: They gave me complete creative freedom, which is very rare especially in Hollywood where everything in controlled. They were really cool and of course, they wanted to hear the pitch and we tweaked a few things first, but once they liked the story and gave the green light, they never interfered. They gave me all the clothes and were very supportive and nurturing.
Q: The story; was it biographical?
A: It is not really biographical but I come from Saudi Arabia and when I saw the Miu Miu collection I got a lot of inspiration and I really felt that there was an 80s vibe to the clothes. It reminded me of home, growing up in Saudi, listening to cassettes and to music, of course they don’t exist anymore. But even though Saudi is now opening up to art and everything, it is still a concentrated society and women taking entertainment positions and taking leadership roles, the society it still very hesitant. Like the main character in the film, who wants to be a singer, it is not something that society is completely comfortable with still or willing to accept. And I don’t think the society will change unless we pay our respects to female artists. We need to show support and respect to art, music and film on a different level so we can thrive as a culture.
Q: Did you film in Saudi Arabia, like your film Wadjda?
A: We filmed in LA, I couldn’t believe it. LA is such an amazing city as there are always pockets of different cultures, and we found this place that had a big Middle East community and we hardly had to do any dressing to the location. It was really cool to see, it felt almost like home. You can find everything in LA.
Q: What kind of memories did the clothes evoke for you as a young girl in Saudi Arabia?
A: I think weddings are the only place, or one of the few places where women can express their individuality as they’re not covered and they can express themselves. There are few places, especially for woman, where they can have an opinion and express themselves fully and that is why fashion is really important in the Middle East and especially Saudi Arabia. It gives them an outlet of control. And I remember that weddings where the best place for that. When I was a kid, my mom loved to sing but she came from a family that there was no way she would ever have been able to sing. But she always sang with her friends, like whenever she went to a party she would always come with an entourage and I was always embarrassed. She’d have so much fun and it was a great time in her life when there was as big family gathering and she’d be able to express herself. So I hope she likes the film too, as it was inspired partly be her.
Q: Watching the film it felt like we were getting to experience a private moment and something that not a lot of non-Saudi Arabians would get to experience. Was that your intention? To open up this world to people?
A: Absolutely. I wanted to show all of the life and the dancing, as it’s always private and excluded from most people. Women always feel that they have to exist in private moment to enjoy themselves. Like even when the bride and her party arrive and all the woman had to cover and go under the radar, it’s only when they’re by themselves that they can thrive and be who they are and have fun, joke and talk.
Q: How do you think Miu Miu as a brand ties into your ethos as a filmmaker?
A: I think the brand is all about empowering women and Miuccia Prada is this amazing matriarch. It’s amazing to see a powerful woman running such a vast empire. So was honored to be a part of their initiative and as I said before, fashion is so important for women to express themselves and a way to be who they are and individuality may sound like something that’s easy to be in the West but in the Middle East, especially where I come from, it’s really difficult. We are very tribal, very collective, and it is hard for a woman to be individual. If you see us we all walk in the same way, the same manner and we are all part of a group and I think it’s healthy to be an individual.
Q: How important is fashion in your films?
A: I really loved working with fashion in my last film, Mary Shelly, as it was a period drama and the clothes were really beautiful. There was something majestic about them and we had fun. Our pattern designer went all over Europe to source the clothes so they really were vintage. She bought them from schools and museums and it amazing to see the beautiful fashion. I think fashion expresses who they are. In the beginning of the film Elle (Fanning, the film’s lead) is wearing corsages and then as she evolves as a woman her fashion evolves too. Growing up is about freedom and expressing yourself and fashion is a part of that.
Q: Your work is always focused on strong women and that’s a running theme in all your work. Why is this so important to you?
A: I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I always felt unseen and unheard and personally I felt depressed because I didn’t feel like I existed. And I hope through my work I give a voice to some people. I don’t want to portray woman as victims how are helpless who can’t do anything about their life because that it not who we are as women. We are fighters and for me I feel an amazing responsibility to not give in, even if situations are hard around women, we are willing to challenge and fight.
Q: Saudi Arabia is going through a huge cultural change at the moment, and your film Wadjda had such a global stage, it played a part in this change. Do you feel a responsibility?
A: I’m really excited about it, I think it’s really amazing that women are being empowered and allowed to drive. I think it’s great that they’re bringing art into the public space. For so many people art was excluded from the public space, like they couldn’t see concerts, films, movies, theatre, and now they can I think it’ll make Saudi Arabia and the region more tolerant and a happier place. Art makes you happy and to embrace life so it’s very important. I’m on the board of the General Authority for Culture and I really excited to bring female voices and to help voice the countries future.
Q: You’re based in LA now, but do you go back to Saudi a lot?
A: Not as much as I want but I go and visit my mother as much as I can. I’m shooting a film in Saudi Arabia soon, called The Perfect Candidate. It’ll be really different from what I last filmed in Saudi. Last time I couldn’t be outside in public, I had to be in a van so not to be seen, so I shot everything from the back of a van. I don’t think I’ll be in the van anymore and it’s been funded by Saudi’s film fund so it’ll definitely be easier. The locations are now more accessible, so it’ll be a very different process. I hope to see more female directors and filmmakers and individual voices come from Saudi, I think it’s time for that.
Q: It’s exciting to think about the art that will come from Saudi now that doors have been opened…
A: Yes absolutely I think Saudi is a very interesting place and I think we’ll find lots of very interesting stories coming from the region. It’s still very traditional and young people are trying to rebel against that a little so you find a lot of interesting stories when you have tension between modernity and tradition.
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