A Pioneering Saudi Director on Her New Film, ‘Mary Shelley’

Posted May 25, 2018 5:32 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — There were no movie theaters in Saudi Arabia when Haifaa al-Mansour was growing up in Al Hasa, a quiet, conservative town in Eastern province, in the 1970s and ‘80s. There was a video store, but she wasn’t allowed to enter — only men were. So she stood outside, flipped through a catalog and made selections that a male clerk would take to her. That was how she fell in love with Disney films, Jackie Chan movies and Bollywood musicals, and decided that she wanted to be a filmmaker.

Things have changed radically since. Saudi women are now allowed to vote and to run in municipal elections; they were recently granted the right to drive; and last month, the government lifted a ban on public movie theaters, screening the Hollywood blockbuster “Black Panther.”

Al-Mansour, 44, has played a role in that cultural transformation. She studied filmmaking at the University of Sydney, and made several shorts and a well-received documentary, “Women Without Shadows,” about the lives of women in the Persian Gulf states. Her 2012 film, “Wadjda,” about a young girl in Riyadh who wants to buy a bicycle so she can race like the boys, was groundbreaking on several fronts: It was the first feature shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia, and the first ever directed by a Saudi woman. “Wadjda” was hailed in the West as a sensitive, poignant story that highlighted the largely invisible lives of Saudi women.

On the surface, al-Mansour’s new film, “Mary Shelley,” looks like a dramatic shift for her, and she admits that she was skeptical, at first, when producer Amy Baer asked her to direct a biopic about that pioneering 19th-century English novelist (played by Elle Fanning).

“When they sent me ‘Mary Shelley,’ I wasn’t really sure I would connect with it,” she said in an interview in Manhattan, to which she had traveled to attend the film’s screening at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. (It opens commercially Friday.) “She’s English and period. What would I know about English period stuff?”

But when she read the script, al-Mansour was amazed at the parallels between Shelley’s struggles to publish her masterpiece, “Frankenstein,” and make a name for herself as a writer, and her own experience as an aspiring artist in a conservative Muslim culture in which women have traditionally been denied the same rights as men.

Al-Mansour spoke about her new film, the cultural reforms transforming Saudi Arabia and her surprising take on how self-censorship can enhance creativity. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: “Wadjda” was the first feature shot inside Saudi Arabia. Since then, there have been major cultural and social reforms. How do you think that might affect your filmmaking career and potentially open up creative industries to other Saudis, especially women?

A: We had permission to shoot “Wadjda,” but we kept it low profile, because we didn’t want people to be upset that we were filming. Saudi Arabia was opening up when we were filming, but it’s not like now. Film is legal, and now they are starting to give Saudi filmmakers money.

I’m working on another film now with the Ministry of Culture called “The Perfect Candidate,” about a young woman who’s embracing politics and wants to run for municipal elections. They are supporting it. It’s amazing to see Saudi Arabia opening up as a place for women and the arts.

Q: How was working on “Mary Shelley” different from directing films in the Middle East?

A: When I was shooting in Riyadh, I couldn’t go in the streets — I had to be in a van on a walkie-talkie, and I always had to be carrying the burden of censorship. Self-censoring is part of who I am when I work in the Arab world. When I started working in the West, the freedom was wonderful. It was nice to be engaging just with my art.

Q: Can you say more about self-censoring and how it shapes your Arabic films?

A: I come from a conservative place and I always want to respect where I come from. I don’t want to go and do something that is outrageous, because it puts a block between you and the audience. I feel like I can present it in a way that they will like and understand, especially when you’re talking about women’s rights or empowering young girls in a conservative society. Because I’m from that culture, I understand it. It made me say things differently, and it’s an interesting exercise. You have to be creative to say things.

Q: How did your background growing up in an extremely conservative culture shape the way you approached Shelley’s story?

A: Coming from where I come from, I know what it means to be discriminated against. But it’s not about that, it’s about how we can succeed and help women move forward, and Mary Shelley did succeed, in spite of everything. That is something I latched on to, because that’s what I think we should do as women, break stereotypes from what people expect from us.

Q: What do you make of the fact that “Black Panther” was the first film to be screened publicly in Saudi Arabia?

A: I think it is really nice! It’s a diverse film; there are a lot of strong female warriors; so it’s really nice to see them embracing diversity. Hopefully they [Saudi audiences] will see women can kick ass.

Q: What other films do you wish the country would show?

A: “Mary Shelley.” “Wonder Woman.” And I hope also we see more films coming out of Saudi Arabia.

Q: Are there plans to screen “Mary Shelley” there?

A: They sent me the press breakdown of countries where I am supposed to go to promote the film, and one of them was Saudi Arabia. I was like, what? Amazing! I hope that they will show it in Saudi Arabia, because it’s a story about a young woman who breaks barriers and tries to have her voice heard. And who intellectually gets dismissed, which is a very common story for women everywhere, of course, in Saudi Arabia, because it is very conservative still, but everywhere in the world, women, intellectually, we don’t get the same respect as men. So I hope girls there will see the film and will be inspired.

Q: I imagine that if they screen it there, they’ll cut the more explicit love scenes between Mary and Percy Shelley. How do you feel about its being censored?

A: It’s OK with me. I think it’s amazing to have the film shown in Saudi Arabia, and that’s the way to go about this. It’s not all or nothing.