Credit: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images for DIFF
Haifaa al-Mansour weighs in on Saudi cinema's new dawn
Two hundred years separate the release of the novel "Frankenstein" and "Mary Shelley," a biopic of its author directed by Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour. One woman rose to prominence after writing through a wet summer near Lake Geneva; the other directing her first feature in Riyadh. Worlds apart, but similarities exist.
"England was a conservative place," says Mansour, describing the prim and sententious 19th century that Shelley lived in. "Maybe not compared to Saudi, for sure, but still, women were expected to act in (a) certain way."
Shelley's name and gender were absent from her novel when it was published anonymously in 1818. At the time, society struggled to accept her on her own terms. "People... didn't want to acknowledge her," says al-Mansour. "That is a journey I really identify with."
Al-Mansour's journey as the first female Saudi director is worth restating. It's a staggering trajectory. Her debut film "Wadjda," the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, announced a new talent in 2012 but faced profound obstacles. Al-Mansour famously resorted to directing from a van for some scenes to conform with her country's restrictions on women in public spaces. Six years later, her sophomore title stars Hollywood actor Elle Fanning, was funded by the British Film Institute and distributed in the US by indie powerhouse IFC Films. Following in the footsteps of cinematic heavyweights Martin Scorsese, Ava DuVernay and Werner Herzog, she's just finished shooting a film for Netflix.
Like her circumstances, Saudi Arabia is also changing. And as an artist once operating on the periphery, al-Mansour now finds herself embraced by the establishment amid a cultural transformation.
In the past year Saudi Arabia has made formal inroads towards joining the global film community, ending a 35-year ban on cinemas, establishing the Saudi Film Council (SFC) and beginning to screen movies starting with Marvel's "Black Panther."
In April, an $8 billion, 129-square mile entertainment city an hour's drive from Riyadh was announced. With over half of Saudi Arabia's 32 million population under the age of 25, the intention is to capture money Saudis spend abroad on entertainment -- particularly in Dubai and Bahrain -- according to project CEO Michael Reininger.
But beyond eye-catching megaprojects, raising the profile of its nascent movie business has also been on the agenda. In May the Kingdom made its first formal appearance at the Cannes Film Festival, the industry's most important trade event. The Saudi presence was "the biggest story of the region, overshadowing everything," says Cairo-based film critic and festival programmer Joseph Fahim.
During the festival the SFC announced it would seek to attract international productions by offering a 35% cash rebate on all spending in the country. The move enters Saudi Arabia into a conversation dominated by rebate hotspots like Georgia, USA, Toronto and the UK, but most crucially it undercuts Abu Dhabi, popular with Hollywood for desert shoots set both on Earth and a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
"There isn't really the infrastructure yet, nor a code of conduct... what is required and requested of filmmakers when they go there," explains film writer E Nina Rothe. That hasn't stopped projects hitching to the Saudi wagon. The country has just launched its first end-to-end movie and TV studio Nebras Films, which has already hosted international co-production "Born A King," per Deadline Hollywood, starring "Deadpool's" Ed Skrein.
So where does al-Mansour fit within this rapidly shifting landscape? In April she was invited to join the new board of directors of the Saudi General Authority for Culture, a steering group for the arts.
"Hopefully we can make Saudi films that can compete internationally (and) represent us," she says, including "more women taking the stage" and "making films." Leading by example, al-Mansour will shoot upcoming feature "The Perfect Candidate," set in the world of Saudi politics and featuring a female lead. It's also the first film supported by the SFC.
Fahim offers caution, saying despite Saudi reforms, "censorship will remain, whether we like it or not."
"Censorship all across the region is getting tighter and tighter," he adds. "I'm also very curious about the door or the window of freedom that they (the Saudi government) would allow. There definitely would be limits. The question is what are those limits? This is what we'll find out over the next few years."
For now, it seems there are more questions than answers. With a diverse roster of short films from Saudis screening at Cannes, including "Film School Musical" -- an expletive-littered "cross between 'La La Land' and 'Glee'" according to Rothe -- perhaps preconceptions are best left at the door.
"It's amazing just to see now how Saudi Arabia is embracing modernity, and moving to be a normal country like the rest of the world," says al-Mansour. "More and more we feel integrated, we feel part of the bigger picture."
In Shelley's "Frankenstein," the eponymous scientist writes that "Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change." With the greatest of respect, one suspects al-Mansour begs to differ.