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Empowering women on the silver screen at the Dubai Film Festival

Haifaa Al-Mansour is an internationally-acclaimed director and is working hard to empower women through film.
DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s iconic film director Haifaa Al-Mansour has added another feather in her cap — winning the IWC Filmmaker Award at the Dubai International Film Festival. Arab News spoke to Al-Mansour about female voices and the choices she has had to make during her rise to the top.

The 43-year-old mother-of-two, who acquired worldwide acclaim for her award-winning feature film “Wadjda,” is known for taking on controversial subjects, such as orthodoxy in traditional Saudi culture and female empowerment.

With her repertoire now including several feature films, documentaries and short films, Al-Mansour has emerged as a significant personality in Arab cinema.

Her most recent project, “Miss Camel,” was shortlisted for the IWC Filmmaker Award at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival. The jury for the prestigious award — the winner of which received a $100,000 cash prize — was headed up by Cate Blanchett and Al-Mansour was up against three other notable filmmakers from the GCC. before her win was announced on Thursday night.

An endearing combination of strong will and humility, the friendly, down-to-earth film director shared her thoughts on what it means to be shortlisted for the awards.

“My film Miss Camel is a passion project, so I’m really excited to see it gaining momentum. It’s something I started developing a long time back and it’s about a subject close to my heart, female empowerment, so I hope to continue the journey with it,” she told Arab News.

With female empowerment fast becoming a zeitgeist in the Middle East and around the world, Al-Mansour believes that “we need to seize the moment — it’s not enough to complain, we need to show what we are capable of. And we are capable of a lot. In cinema, I think we need to make more films that are powerful and women-centric.”

Women’s issues have played a major role in many of Al-Mansour’s films, with her very first feature film being based on an enterprising young Saudi girl who signs up to a Qur’an recitation competition in order to buy the green bicycle that has caught her eye.

“Growing up in Saudi Arabia, where it’s very conservative, being a woman felt very heavy... I just wanted to give an alternative voice, so women can see themselves as leaders, as agents of change, as victorious — we are not victims, we are survivors. This is what I want to give my daughter, my sister, my mother,” she said, explaining why she chooses to zero in on women’s empowerment issues.

Al-Mansour has not had an easy ride and had to learn a particular set of skills in order to sell herself and her films in the highly-competitive industry.

“In filmmaking, specifically, finding funding is always hard. For me, coming from a place where there’s no film industry, it’s even harder to find the right partners who see your vision and help you realize that vision. It took me five years to find any interest in my first film and even now, after three successful features, financing is still difficult — it’s just how the business works.

“For me personally, as an artist, it was also hard to be a saleswoman, but I had to do it. It was worth doing all that to bring my story to life.”

Al-Mansour has broken out onto the international movie scene — her newly-released film “Mary Shelley” stars Hollywood star Elle Fanning and tells the story of a teenager’s romance with English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley — but Saudi Arabia remains close to her heart.

“Women in Saudi Arabia have been fighting very hard for their rights, there are a lot of people who are very active there and Saudi society is moving forward. Change is a very painful process, every society needs to take its own pace to embrace change. It’s going in the right direction though… it has been happening for a long time, but now it’s really accelerating,” she said.

Women have played an important part in Al-Mansour’s life, so much so that she credits her mother as being a role model.

“My mother definitely is the strongest influence in my life. She is a very strong woman and I really appreciate everything she has done to help me develop my own voice. She was an everyday rebel — standing up for herself in small ways. She didn’t care about criticism, how people saw her, as long as she was happy.

“In cinema, my biggest inspiration would probably be the (Belgian filmmaker duo) Dardenne brothers. I find their films very moving and when I saw ‘Rosetta’ (the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 1999), it was one of the first times I realized how cinema can touch people’s minds.”

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