I learned to love movies in a country where cinemas were illegal. My only access to film as a Saudi girl came through our crummy local video shop in suburban Riyadh where I grew up, where women were forbidden to enter. When I was old enough to go on my own, I would wait just outside the door for a male worker to bring me a catalog to flip through, selecting titles that would transport me to places that seemed millions of miles away.
Thanks to Jackie Chan, Bollywood and Disney I discovered a world beyond our borders. Those videos were the foundation for my crazy dream of someday making my own movies. It’s humbling to think about that small girl longing to enter that video store in the early 1990s, to now being permitted to attend cinemas around Saudi Arabia to watch the latest movies — like a normal day in so much of the world. On April 18, the Saudi government allowed a movie, “Black Panther,” to be shown in cinemas for the first time in decades, part of a series of cultural reforms sweeping my home country.
That word — normal — has been on my mind a lot lately. For decades, Saudis have struggled under the weight of impossibly restrictive regulations to do the most normal things. Visit the cinema. Drive a car. Go to a sporting event. Enjoy music in a public venue.
Yet, my home country appears to be finally moving closer to normal. That may not seem like much to the outside world, but for those of us Saudis who have dedicated our lives to a more normalized approach to the arts — and toward women’s improved status in society — it is truly a revolutionary time.
I’ve made several movies — documentaries, shorts and feature films — about the plight of women in the Arab world. In 2012, I wrote and directed “Wadjda,” which was the first feature film to be made inside the kingdom and my country’s first submission for Oscar consideration. The story of a girl who dreams of owning a bicycle, and her lonely mother, whose life is determined daily by an abrasive driver and a disinterested husband, resonated with audiences around the world. I wanted to show a country that was already shifting — and to depict my hopes for women and young people across Saudi Arabia.
As both a Saudi woman and a film director, I lived for years with the restrictions that my home country imposed on the industry and my daily life before traveling the world with my husband, an American diplomat, to study and make films. I often struggled to do the most basic things as a filmmaker. I had to direct the outdoor scenes for “Wadjda” relegated to a van, with a monitor and a walkie-talkie, to adhere to the strict gender segregation rules. I couldn’t start a company without a male sponsor from my family, and I had to hire male production managers. It was infuriating to depend on less qualified people whose names are credited with work that I could have done solo. Six years later, with the changes to sponsorship rules, I am opening my own business this year in my own name: Haifaa Al Mansour Productions.
The first film I will produce, “The Perfect Candidate,” tells the story of a young female doctor who runs for municipal office while her father is off touring the country with the reincarnated Saudi National Band, which had been banned under laws prohibiting public music performances. It is a tale that applauds women’s ambitions in politics, celebrates our lost arts and the return of music to our small towns. When I was raising money for “Wadjda,” potential partners were skeptical about filming here. Now people are excited. It makes my films a safer investment, and makes Saudi Arabia seem like a more normal place to shoot.
As a major influencer in the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia sets the tone for how millions of people around the globe approach societal standards and religious life. With a softening of our stance on the arts and social restrictions in general, the message to zealots and ultraconservatives everywhere seems more clear: “You are no longer a part of the mainstream.”
I am thrilled that “Black Panther” was the first film officially screened in the kingdom earlier this month. It represents everything I love about cinema, and provides the audience with conversations about identity, politics and diversity, through an action-movie thrill ride. To experience a phenomenon like this in public, with friends and family, to laugh and cringe along with strangers, is a privilege. It reminds me of when my father transformed our patio into a makeshift cinema years ago. Although he was probably just trying to keep me and my 11 siblings out of his hair, it was a magical time, of laughter and popcorn under a starry sky.
The simple changes I am witnessing in Saudi Arabia go far beyond movies and are partly propelling the country’s new momentum. The lifting of the ban on women drivers was a dream that I had all but given up years ago. It has always been one of those symbols in the global psyche, along with no movie theaters, that has defined us as a people and a country. The ban also inspired me to make “Wadjda”; I explored the plight of women through the metaphor of a girl wanting a bicycle. The character just wanted control over her own movement, and to achieve the same velocity as her male friends. Her mother was restricted daily by her driver, which has been one of the most frustrating aspects of daily life for Saudi women. Fortunately, the grumpy driver character will be relegated to Saudi Arabia’s history books in June when women are granted driving rights for the first time since 1957.
I was recently invited, along with 13 men and two other women, by Awwad Saleh Alwwad, the Saudi minister of culture and information, to join the new board of directors for the kingdom’s General Authority for Culture. As I arrived in Riyadh from my home in Los Angeles for our first official meeting in April, the country already felt different. Women seemed suddenly visible, working in shops and dressed with splashes of color. They have identities. They are not afraid to be seen.
I thought of that girl waiting outside a video store. She is now part of the government’s efforts to bring arts to a society starved for culture. It is surreal and overwhelming. But soon, like all great changes after normalcy returns, it could seem like the most basic right in the world. That will be when the real work begins, when we push ourselves to move beyond normal to create something extraordinary.
Haifaa Al Mansour is a Saudi Arabian film director whose latest film is Mary Shelley.