After 5 years, the hard work is finally paying off for filmmaker Haiffa al-Mansour and her landmark film “Wadjda”. After returning back to her native Saudi Arabia we caught up with Haiffa to discuss her huge success at the 69th Venice Film Festival, the standing ovations and scooping the prestigious CICAE Award. 

Congratulations Haifa, on your win at Venice and the incredible reaction you have received for “Wadjda”. 

Haifa: Thank you so much I worked really hard on this film so it’s wonderful that people are noticing it.

How was your experience in Venice, a standing ovation for your film and to be awarded the CICAE award how did that feel?

Haifa: It was really emotional, I’m glad people reacted so well to the film and respected the hard work we had all put in over so many years. It’s challenging to make a film in Saudi Arabia and I worked for five years to complete the film. So, when you see people reacting so positively it feels incredible and when there was a standing ovation…well we were crying. The reviews were good and people were interested in the story of “Wadjda” regardless of the politics that surround it.  

Did you ever anticipate this sort of response when you were making the film?

Haifa: Oh no, this was way beyond what we were thinking.  We were just so happy that it was selected for Venice, which was a huge honour.  You come with a small film and you just want people to enjoy and appreciate it, we never expected this and it’s amazing. I’m really happy my producers are happy and for the sales company who are selling our film all over the world. They did a great job coming to Saudi, taking all the risks and I’m thrilled for them that the film is doing well financially. 

What do you think it is about your film that resonates with audiences from all over the world?

Haifa: I think it’s the universal theme of a person trying to achieve regardless of their circumstances and the fight for life, the desire to go out and succeed in something you really want despite what is happening around you. Saudi Arabia is a very conservative place and sometimes it’s hard for a woman to seek something that is out of her reach. Sometimes people will try to achieve things that they are not supposed to, not just in Saudi Arabia but anywhere in the world and people want to see someone like that succeed. Believing in and cheering on the underdog, someone who is determined, works hard is something that resonates with people.  

Do you think the success that you are achieving will help pave the way for other woman directors coming out of the region?

Haifa: I certainly hope so; I would love to see woman filmmakers from the region make films about their dreams and what they believe in. It would be great see talent from the Gulf come through because it’s tribal sometimes in this region and it’s different for us individually as we often think collectively. So, it’s always nice to see people break away from that and think for themselves, develop voices of their own and come up with a story that is challenging and strays away from the collective mainstream.

Are you working on any other projects that you can share with us? 

Haifa: There are lots of stories that we want to tell.  We will wait to see what happens with this film and take it from there. I certainly want to film more in Saudi, it’s such an amazing place and the society is very complex and closed.  People know very little about the lifestyle here and so there is a lot of curiosity.  Saudi Arabia’s position in the world politically is very important it’s a big, diverse country with lots of rich and fascinating stories.  

What has been your family’s reaction to all you have achieved so far? 

Haifa: They were thrilled; it was really nice to see them so proud. It was especially emotional for my mother; she has really believed in us and pushed us regardless of any limitations.  Parents and families are under social pressure to put limits on their daughter’s appearance in Saudi and my parents believed in me and what I was trying to achieve. 

How important are programmes offered by DIFF and other institutes to filmmakers in the region? 

Haifa: It’s amazing; DIFF has so many initiatives that offer opportunities to filmmakers. I attended the Dubai Film Market and was with my film in Film Connection, then through Interchange and finally the post production programme Enjaaz.  When you go through programmes like this as a first time filmmaker you’re not sure of yourself and you don’t know how people will receive you and your film. It was a great, I was introduced to experienced professionals who selected my film and gave me advice and shared their knowledge. This gave me confidence, they helped push the film and give me the exposure I needed.  During the last stages Enjaaz made the film possible, we were in a tight position so it was nice to have the post production fund to help us complete the film and be ready for Venice. I can’t thank DIFF enough for all the support they have given to the film from the very beginning through to Enjaaz. 

Who do you regard as inspirational from the industry? 

Haifa: I’m a film junkie so I’ve watched a lot of films growing up and many have inspired me. I like the concept of taking the film from the studio to the streets, it’s so powerful. In Saudi everyone is watching TV and it’s such an artificial environment that I wanted to do something realistic that has a documentary style to bring a flavour to the country. I love the Coen brothers they are incredible, super smart and I think there films are fantastic. I hope one day I can write a script that is so clever. Also Jafar Panahi’s film “Offside” the colours, the love of life, and the youthfulness it film inspired me a lot.

What tips of advice would you give for new filmmakers from the region? 

Haifa: To be honest, have an opinion and challenge the mainstream. Also to work really hard, making a film is not easy and they have to seek support from everyone like DIFF, Enjaaz and all those funds and sources are that invaluable. Get people interested in your journey and they will want to see you succeed. 

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