Saudi film director Haifaa Al-Mansour is the woman behind Miu Miu’s latest movie, The Wedding Singer’s Daughter – the latest installment in the fashion house’s series of short films: Women’s Tales. She talks to Sorbet about empowering women from the Middle East and why it is so important to tell their stories 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 fi lmed in L.A., I couldn’t believe it. L.A. is such an amazing city as there are always pockets of different cultures. We found a 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.
Q: What kind of memories did the clothes evoke for you, from your youth 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 can express themselves. There are few places, especially for women, 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 women an outlet of control. I remember weddings were the best place for that. When I was a kid, my mom loved to sing but she came from a family that wouldn’t have let her sing, but she always sang with her friends. Whenever she went to a party she would always come with an entourage and I was always so embarrassed. She’d have so much fun and whenever there was a big family gathering she’d be able to fully express herself. I hope she likes the film too, as it was inspired partly by 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 get to experience. Was this your intention?
A: Absolutely. I wanted to show life and dancing, as it’s always private and excluded from most people. Women always feel that they have to exist in private moments to enjoy themselves. Even when the bride and her party arrive in the fi lm, and all the women have to cover and go under the radar, it’s only when they are by themselves that they can thrive and be who they are. It’s only then that they can have fun, joke and talk.
Q: How do you think Miu Miu as a brand ties into your ethos as an artist and filmmaker?
A: The brand is all about empowering women and Miuccia Prada is an amazing matriarch. It’s amazing to see a powerful woman running such a vast empire. I 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 for women to be who they are. Individuality may sound like something that’s easy in the West but in the Middle East, especially where I come from, it’s really diffi cult. We are very tribal; very collective, and it’s hard for a woman to be individual. We all walk in the same way; the same manner, and we are all part of a group. It’s healthy to be an individual.
Q: How important is fashion in your work?
A: I really loved working with fashion in my last fi lm, Mary Shelley, 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 clothes so they were from the right era. They were all vintage, bought from schools and museums. I think fashion expresses who the characters are. In the beginning of the fi lm, Elle [Fanning, the fi lm’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 art is focused on strong women. Why is this theme so important to you?
A: I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I always felt unseen and unheard. Personally, I felt depressed because I didn’t feel like I existed. I hope through my work I give a voice to some people who also feel unheard. I don’t want to portray women as victims who are helpless and can’t do anything about their lives, because that is not who we are as women. We are fi ghters. For me, I feel an amazing responsibility to not give in. Even if situations are hard, women are willing to challenge and fight.
“Fashion is important for women to express themselves…In the Middle East, especially [in Saudi Arabia], it’s really difficult. We are very tribal; very collective, and it’s hard for a woman to be an individual”- Haifaa Al-Mansour
Q: Saudi Arabia is going through a huge cultural change at the moment, and your fi lm Wadjda had such a global stage, it played a part in this change. Do you feel a weight of responsibility?
A: I’m really excited about it; I think it’s amazing that women are being empowered and allowed to drive. It’s great that they’re bringing art into the public space. For so many people, art was excluded from the public; people couldn’t see concerts, watch fi lms, go to the movies or theatre, and now they can. I think it will make Saudi Arabia and the region more tolerant and a happier place. Art makes you embrace life, so it’s very important. I am on the board of the General Authority for Culture and I am really excited to bring female voices and to help voice Saudi Arabia’s future.
Q: It is exciting to think about the art that will come from Saudi now that the doors have been opened…
A: Yes absolutely. I think Saudi is a very interesting place and I think we’ll fi nd lots of interesting stories coming from the region. It is still very traditional and young people are trying to rebel against that a little. Interesting stories come from the tension between modernity and tradition.
Q: You are based in L.A. now, but do you go back to Saudi?
A: Not as much as I want to, but I do go and visit my mother as much as I can. I am shooting a fi lm in Saudi Arabia soon, called The Perfect Candidate. It will be really different from the last fi lm I shot in Saudi. Last time I couldn’t be outside in public; I had to be in a van, so as 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 [the new fi lm] is being funded by Saudi’s fi lm fund, so it’ll defi nitely be easier. The locations are more accessible now, so it’ll be a very different process. I hope to see more female directors, fi lmmakers and individual voices come from Saudi; I think it is time for that.
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