Haifaa Al-Mansour hopes to empower young women with her latest film ‘Mary Shelley’

Saudi film maker Haifaa Al-Mansour. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
Updated 01 July 2018
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Haifaa Al-Mansour hopes to empower young women with her latest film ‘Mary Shelley’

  • Given the limitations of the Saudi film industry five years ago, it was inevitable that, after “Wadjda,” Al-Mansour would take her talents outside of the Kingdom in order to continue telling stories to the world.

Before Saudi Arabia ended its 35-year ban on cinemas, before it began the construction of its own full-fledged movie industry, Saudi Arabian film was still making headlines and garnering praise across the world through the work of Haifaa Al-Mansour. With her 2005 documentary “Women Without Shadows,” and her groundbreaking 2012 film “Wadjda” — the first movie to be shot entirely in the Kingdom — Al-Mansour brought Saudi Arabia’s culture and issues to the global stage with poetry and fervor.

Given the limitations of the Saudi film industry five years ago, it was inevitable that, after “Wadjda,” Al-Mansour would take her talents outside of the Kingdom in order to continue telling stories to the world. This month saw the release of “Mary Shelley,” in which Al-Mansour has brought to the screen the life of another brilliant woman who helped progress the society around her, the woman who wrote the seminal novel “Frankenstein,” which she published anonymously at only 20 years old.

“If I were able to make films in Saudi, I might have stayed, but I think also for me I wanted to grow as a filmmaker: To explore bigger markets, and bigger storytelling. That is why I tried to make an English-language film,” Al-Mansour told Arab News. “As an artist, I grow. I have a bigger audience and reach more people. I love to be a part of that.”

Al-Mansour and Shelley have more in common than it may seem. Shelley was famously married to poet Percy Shelley, with whom she travelled to Lake Geneva, where the story of Frankenstein was born. Al-Mansour is the daughter of poet Abudl Rahman Mansour, who introduced her to the magic of cinema at a young age.

“No matter where you set your film, you always have to connect with the characters. It’s very important for me as a filmmaker to have something in common with the characters that I create on screen. If I don’t, I can’t really portray them or portray their struggles, happiness, or whatever else they go through.,” Mansour said.

“In the beginning, telling the story of Mary Shelley, an English woman, was maybe not easy, but I connected with her journey — trying to find her voice, and trying to have her book published — I felt that story represents me. The character, the struggle, represents me. That is what I discovered. It doesn’t matter where the film is set. If you can unlock the characters, and connect with them, you can make it anywhere in the world,” she continued

American actress Elle Fanning, who plays the lead role in “Mary Shelley,” was impressed with Al-Mansour’s handling of the material.

“In a way she just knows what it feels like to be a young girl, to grow up and go through the hardships that women have,” Fanning told Arab News. “A lot of strong women have lived with this script; it’s very powerful and you can feel that on set which I think is crucial and important in telling Mary’s story.”

Al-Mansour admitted she did not expect to be asked to direct an English-language period drama as her first film after “Wadjda” (“The producers sent it to my agent and I was very surprised,” she said. “It’s a period piece! Set in England!”), but the story of Mary Shelley was one that she was familiar with from when she was at college.

“I was a literature major, so I read “Frankenstein,” and I read about Mary Shelley,” she said. “I did a paper on women authors and she was one of them, but I had forgotten about that. I was just a kid writing for college. But when they sent me the script, it was very interesting. I started reading about her, and reading about her life, and I felt it was a story that needs to be told.”

Al-Mansour believes films such as “Mary Shelley” need to exist so that young women can see the effect that they can have on the world, through the example of pioneering women from history.

“It is a legacy. You leave a legacy for women. We need to understand that we are not coming out of nowhere. We have made advancements in science and literature. It’s important to build on those advancements. That is what empowers women to move forward — to see other women doing stuff,” said Al-Mansour.

The filmmaker believes that now is a great time for female directors, pointing out that it is not only Saudi Arabia that is changing — Hollywood, too, is finally embracing the idea of women helming the biggest movie projects.

“I think ‘Wonder Woman’ is amazing,” Al-Mansour said. “It not only conquered the box office, but it has a female star and a female director (Patty Jenkins). I always feel that studios are reluctant to give a $100 million budget for a female star and a woman director. ‘Wonder Woman,’ in a way, succeeded in opening the door for other female filmmakers. Niki Caro is doing “Mulan” for Disney, which is amazing. She’s one of the few female filmmakers doing films above $100 million. That’s never happened before. It’s an exciting time for women.”


Why Bollywood can’t get enough of fashion from the Arab world

No major red-carpet event in India is complete without at least a couple of leading ladies wearing a gown from an Arab designer. (AFP)
Updated 43 min 56 sec ago
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Why Bollywood can’t get enough of fashion from the Arab world

  • When Indian cinema’s leading ladies need to slay on the red carpet, they are increasingly turning to Middle East designers.

DUBAI: Bollywood has long been popular in the region. The Gulf is Indian cinema’s largest overseas market, and — in return — Bollywood has fallen in love with fashion from the Middle East. The two have plenty in common: not least a passion for opulence, (melo)drama and craftsmanship.

No major red-carpet event in India is complete without at least a couple of leading ladies wearing a gown from an Arab designer — and designers from, or based in, the Middle East are increasingly becoming the “go-to” for Indian actors at international film festivals too. At the most recent edition of the Cannes Film Festival, for example, Priyanka Chopra wore a white strapless gown from Lebanese designer Georges Hobeika, Aishwarya Rai wore a white gown by Beirut-based Ashi Studio, Kangana Ranaut opted for a sheer embroidered gown by Dubai-based Filipino designer Michael Cinco and Diana Penty was spotted in a yellow dress with feather details by Oman’s Atelier Zuhra.

Mohit Rai, one of India’s leading celebrity stylists, started his career with Harper’s Bazaar India and made the switch to working with Bollywood several years ago. His client list includes Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonakshi Sinha and Shilpa Shetty. He says, “The Middle East is the only other region apart from India that really appreciates a high level of couture and craftsmanship. Their common aesthetic is a major reason for Indian stylists looking to Middle Eastern fashion. Plus, Arab designers are able to combine the Parisian and European flair for pattern cutting while retaining the Indian love for embellishment.” 

With many designers from the Middle East showing at Paris Couture Week (this year, Maison Rabih Kayrouz became the second Arab designer after Elie Saab to be authorized by the French Couture Federation to use the tag haute couture), they understand silhouette and tailoring, and because the region has a heritage of handcrafted beading and threadwork, they are able to marry the best of East and West.

Dubai-based Syrian designer Rami Al-Ai recently worked with Bollywood star Kareena Kapoor Khan. “We both appreciate the same beauty, and there’s a lot of similarity in the way they celebrate life. Both have this kind of dramatic celebration when it comes to weddings and functions.” Indeed, when Deepika Padukone married Ranveer Singh last year, she turned to acclaimed Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad for one of her wedding looks.

There are designers in India who specialize in red-carpet fashion, and while their surface embellishments are impeccable, their fit often is not on par with their embroidery. Historically Indian fashion is more about drape than construction, as Rai points out.

“I do not think India has enough designers catering to the Western evening wear segment in a very couture category such as the Middle Eastern ones,” he tells Arab News.

His favoured Arab designers include Beirut-band ased Saudi Arabian designer Mohammed Ashi of Ashi Studio, Kuwait’s Yousef Al-Jasmi, Dubai based Atelier Zuhra. Whereas Hollywood tends to go with the region’s best-known designers such as Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad — who both have a strong international retail presence — Bollywood is happy to work with both seasoned and emerging designers.

A shared aesthetic is what makes Arab design appeal to Bollywood’s stylists, but there is also a more pragmatic reason for the synergy between the Bollywood red carpet and Middle Eastern fashion: Their geographical proximity.

Ami Patel is one of the best-known celebrity stylists in India and works with stars including Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt and Kananga Ranaut. She finds it easier to work with the Middle East than Europe, she says.

“I think Middle Eastern designers understand the Indian body type and silhouette very well. They know exactly what Indian celebrities want and cater to them. Since the countries are in close proximity working with them becomes easier.”

Patel adds that she finds designers from the region can work on quick turnarounds and are able to tweak designs when needed. Indian women do tend to be curvy, so regular European sample sizes are often just not an option for many of India’s leading ladies. And whereas European fashion houses may have only heard of Indian actors who have done international work — such as Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone — designers from the Middle East are familiar with the landscape of Indian cinema, meaning they are easier to approach. As Patel says, “Middle Eastern designers follow Bollywood films and stars very closely and it’s a great amalgamation which has some really great outcomes.” 

One recent look of which Patel is particularly proud is Alia Bhatt’s appearance in a midnight-black Zuhair Murad gown at the Indian International Film Academy Awards in New York.

“It was a really special look for me,” she says. “The gown was stunning; it had such beautiful delicate embroidery which gave an illusion as if the entire constellation of stars had descended onto Alia.”

The fact that the region is so close to India also means that Indian celebrities regularly visit the Middle East.

“A lot of Indian celebrities are doing a lot of events in the Middle East, and that plays a big role in picking what kind of outfits to wear,” says Rai.

Dubai designer Rami Al-Ali agrees. “Bollywood stars are also celebrities in the Middle East world,” he says.

“Since the Middle East is actually aligned with the industry, they are definitely keener on dressing Indian stars and even willing to customise and size outfits for our actors,” says Rai. And so, for Indian cinema, it is Arab designers who rule the red carpet.