She prefers to be known only by her first name. She believes in the universal power of attraction. She reads Osho. She also thinks that dance and music can be spiritual experiences. She’s rebellion and tenderness; lady-like, yet tomboyish; soft, and loud—a juxtaposition of contradictions.
She also thinks it isn’t so outlandish that our meeting is the result of my wishful thinking. I decided to like her already. There’s a side to her that understands strangeness.
The first Saudi female to have graduated in filmmaking under the tutelage of William Esper, she has no illusions of self. Early this year, she premiered ‘Sanctity,’ a self-directorial short film on the struggles of a young pregnant widow in the fist of an unforgiving society, at the Doha Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival.
Needless to say, I was blown away by her spunk as much as I was by her easy charm. Here’s trying to get inside the head of Ahd Kamel during long hours spent chatting, intensely.
It wasn’t something I dreamt about as a kid, but I always performed at home and imitated everything. I was doing it always whether my family liked it or not.
The acting bug caught on quite early then?
In school I used to act in plays but I never thought that I’d end up doing this. I went to New York to study law. Looking back, I think I fell in love with law because of the scenes in courtrooms that I used to see in movies. I think it was more about performance than it was actually about law.
Your parents must have been pretty open-minded?
I grew up very sheltered and conservative. This whole thing never even crossed my mind but I always had an artistic side to me.
What happened with studying law?
After one semester in Columbia I hated it. I decided to reapply at Parsons to study animation. By the fourth year of animation, I realized that I did not want to do it. I loved the creative side of it, but it was too solitary for me.
You like to work with people?
I realized I was too ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) to sit in one place.
Have you been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder?
Yeah, nooo…but I always jump from one thing to the next.
Did your jump from law to animation make for a confused state of mind?
Animation was too tedious and drove me crazy. I just didn’t have the love for it. So for my thesis, out of laziness, I decided to do a documentary with 5-minute intervals of animation just so I didn’t have to animate characters and stuff. And that’s how I fell in love with the camera.
And then you went back to school to study acting?
I finished studying animation, but I wasn’t ready to come back. That’s when I decided to enroll in a film school and I absolutely fell in love. I realized that the first day we were on set I was there for 14 hours, and I had lost complete track of time. I was doing what I just loved doing. I tell people that cinema chose me, I didn’t choose cinema. I just stumbled on it.
How much of an influence did your family have on the person you were trying to be?
My dad was a very creative person. He was a doctor and then switched to banking. He was also a poet who was very interested in writing and the arts, and he loved music. He was a huge influence on me.
I’ve heard that you’re quite into music yourself?
Yes. It is everything to me. Sometimes, I fall into very dark music and sometimes I love house music, other times I’m on a pop binge. It really depends on my mood.
Can I hear what’s on your playlist?
Oh they always vary. But someone who has always stuck around is Sade and the Dave Matthews Band.
Oh, you’re so old school!
I am old school! I’m 32, so I’m definitely old school at this point. I’ve accepted this realization. Eighties music was definitely a huge part of my upbringing. I remember my brother and I would go to Khalediyah (a district in Jeddah) to buy these mix-tapes and try to figure them out because they never labeled them correctly. And whenever we traveled, a huge part of our trip was to go to record shops and buy our music.
You were an assistant to Peter Berg on the movie The Kingdom. I’ve always wondered whether it was shot in Dubai…
Oh no, in Arizona. And a few shots in Abu Dhabi actually. It was absolutely magical.
How did you manage to get on board with him?
I met Peter through a friend. He was doing the movie, and I said ‘I want to work with you,’ and he said, ‘Okay. Come on board as my set assistant.’ And I had no idea what to do because I hadn’t worked on that scale and…
So it fell into your lap just like that? Like those true moments in destiny…
Yeah, exactly! I really don’t know what pushed me to ask him. I had zero expertise. And then he called me up and said ‘I want you with us.’ So I went and had no idea what to expect.
How did it turn out?
It was a really, really great experience on many levels. It was this huge company on wheels. Everything was running as smoothly as it could. Just seeing how the departments were communicating with each other and watching him with the actors and other members was a true Hollywood experience. And being his assistant, I had the “in” on a lot of things, which was a great opportunity for me.
But you didn’t continue in the Hollywood frame… Why?
I didn’t want to move to L.A. I wasn’t interested in Hollywood. It was too big and grand for me. I preferred the independent scene in New York. I knew my direction was not Hollywood.
How did you settle back in after having experienced the ‘Hollywood dream’?
I went back to New York and started working on tiny, small-budget films. I worked as an actor in a friends’ film during film school and it did well in the film festival circuits. You know, coming from Saudi, I didn’t even know whether I should dip my feet in the water and try…
Did your family oppose to you becoming an actress?
I was living in New York. I was far away, and at that point I was married to an American guy. We got divorced though after a three-year marriage. By Saudi rules I was covered because my husband was okay with it. So that’s what pushed me in that direction. Also, when I started acting school I deeply fell in love with acting because it appealed to different sides of me.
What do you feel most at home with, artistically? Because you direct, you act and you also write your stories…
I think all three. Whether I act or direct or write, it’s like a spell. Acting is more visible, because you really truly lose yourself. And you do that in writing as well.
Writing and acting can be such solitary experiences, but filmmaking brings a collective dynamic into the equation, no? How do you prepare mentally to juggle between these extremely disparate modes of creative expressions?
I like to be very prepared when I’m directing, but I also allow spontaneity, which is what happens in my films. We adjust as we go along. That’s why it’s a creative process. It’s never-ending. It’s never closed or done. There’s always room for things, and as a director you have to be open to that, otherwise you might miss out on opportunities. That’s why it’s great to work with a group of people because there’s a dynamic and every person on the set brings something to your shoot.
Your short film Sanctity, deals with the theme of widowhood. How did the idea originate with you first? Was it inspired by a story you had heard or read…?
Widowhood was more about the question of not having a man in your life. My parents are deceased, and I am so lucky to have four brothers. But you reach a stage where it’s debilitating, where you need this man in your life to get things done. So it was about that. You know what I mean…
How much of you is in the main character?
The character was tormented, losing her husband and being pregnant with her first child. Just creating those circumstances, I could relate to some of them.
I have great brothers who respect me and respect my choices, but what if someone didn’t. The story started with the question that what if a woman didn’t have a man, what would she do? And how do you illustrate women’s strength, which is endurance? A lot of people mistake that as a weakness, but no, that’s part of our strength as women and that’s something that we should look at and appreciate. Men in this society should understand that. People understand strength only as power and male strength. So how do these oppressed women fight back?
The portrayal of immense strength from the central character Areej, a widowed pregnant woman in Saudi Arabia, seemed a little strange to me, considering her circumstances.
And that’s exactly what I wanted to show. That’s the female strength that I’m talking about. She’s carrying a baby. She has no time to mourn and to feel bad for herself. She has to think ahead of that. She has a child to protect, so what is she willing to endure, you know. And I think that’s part of why she’s detached. She was willing to go and break all these taboos. The woman opens a window into her most vulnerable state and mans up.
I must admit I was a little upset that there was no clarity in the closing scene… Am I justified to feel that way?
Yeah, but see… I like to leave room for the audience to imagine and take the film with them. The films that have touched me have always never had a true ending. Because I feel that with creative work, you can’t wrap it up. That’s not life.
Or you didn’t want to deal with the onus of having to create a clear-cut finale?
No… No. It was very intentional. I wanted the audience to walk away with that ending in their head and with the question in my head.
What was the question in your head?
What would a woman like her do? And how are we dealing with such things? Are we dealing with them objectively in our society, or as if we are in a utopia that doesn’t exist? It’s more about turning the mirror inwards. At the end of the day, the film was a reaction to what was happening inside of me. To questions, conflicts, and struggles like these nobody has an answer. I never look at a film as a message or a case. It’s always a question and I like to live that question.
In your films you've managed to break out of discussing stereotypical themes like hijab, or say, women driving – stories that may usually be expected to originate from Saudi Arabia.
See… That for me is like an agenda. It’s public service announcements or propaganda. I’m an artist. It’s really about what’s happening inside of me and what moves me emotionally and how the story reaches me. Again, I don’t want to be politicized. ‘Sanctity’ came from a lot of personal experiences, of being a Saudi woman and living in the west for so long, and having to break their stereotypical image of women in Saudi. And then coming here and listening to all the crazy stories about what’s happening to women. When you put your work out, it’s out of your hands, you can’t control it anymore, and people can judge it left, right and center. For me, a mere judgment isn’t based on showing hair in my film for which people would completely shun the film, or create problems and miss the whole point.”
But don’t you expect misinterpretation, or perhaps some measure of offense for shooting scenes that show a bit of skin and hair at some level? At least in terms of Saudi sensibilities…
Yeah, that’s why my films don’t screen in Saudi.
That doesn’t upset you?
I’m okay with it, for now. Not everyone will like my films. I’m pretty sure about that.
Well you can’t keep everybody happy.
And I don’t want to. If I put up my films on YouTube and let everyone watch them. When someone puts a fatwa on my head, some crazy dude shows up at my door, and shoots me: it’s done. At the end of the day, whatever issues my films are bringing inside of them is their problem. It has nothing to do with me. It’s really about me, and my freedom of expression.
People in Saudi Arabia don’t simply take offense and go home, sleep on it and wake up the next morning. Some people make it their life mission to go out and kill you, which is absolutely insane.
Tell me about your experience on the sets of ‘Wadjda,’ under the directorial expertise of Haifa Al-Mansour.
It was great. I was initially to play the role of the mother. The teacher was so standoffish you know. But I’m so glad she (Haifa) pushed me to do this role. Also, it was a great opportunity for me because for the first time I wasn’t playing an oppressed Arab woman trying to piece her life together. I was playing evil and that had to be born somewhere. And how that character redeems herself was actually fun. That really allowed me to go back to that different side of me.
As an active Saudi woman, your profile boasts a couple of firsts. Do you feel some kind of responsibility to project a certain image of the Saudi woman?
Absolutely not. I am an artist before being Saudi. That is important for me, and for people to understand. I don’t want to carry the Saudi flag by any means because once you do that, you are politicized and you become a role model. And that’s exactly what I don’t want to be. As an artist I want room for myself to do whatever I need to do and to be able to explore whatever appeals to me. I’m too selfish honestly to want to project any of that.
But it isn’t that easy to escape the profiling, I presume.
I’m not speaking for Saudi women. My experience is different from other Saudi women. I think the most important thing we need to understand right now is the freedom of choice and that’s what we’re lacking here, for women and for men. And that’s what we should be advocating more than anything else. If I choose not to have a guardian at a certain age, then I’m supposed to have that right. At the end of the day, women are the people bringing up the kids and the new generation. So if we’re capable of bringing up kids, then we’re capable of the responsibility for ourselves. We need to look into things again and understand why we are doing certain things. Times are changing, and how do we adapt to changing times? We need to be objective and use our religion. We’ve forgotten the sanctity of life, and really are focused on superficial issues. What was it that I read the other day…? ‘Women are like chocolates. If they’re uncovered, then insects and flies will…’ What? So we’re objects now? Stop objectifying things. We’re part of society and we’re capable.