Saudi-born filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour talks about her upcoming feature debut Wajda, which was awarded the $100,000 Shasha Grant at the Circle Conference in Abu Dhabi last year.

With three shorts and a documentary already under her belt, Haifaa is the first female filmmaker to emerge from Saudi Arabia, a conservative country where there is no filmmaking infrastructure and cinemas have been banned for more than three decades.

Her first short film Who?, featuring a serial killer who hides himself by dressing like a Saudi woman, became a local sensation when she distributed it on in the internet. Her documentary, Women Without Shadows, won prizes at the Muscat Film Festival and Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Film Competition in 2006. The $100,000 Shasha development grant for Wajda also came with first-look deal with Imagenation Abu Dhabi which is co-producing the film with Berlin-based Razor Film.

Born in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia and educated at the American University in Cairo, Haifaa splits her time between Saudi and the US and will soon relocate to Bahrain.

How did you get into filmmaking?

I love films and I just wanted to make something meaningful for myself – I wanted to find a voice – and someone suggested that I make a short. I had no idea how to start, so I bought a digital camera and made a zero-budget film by myself with my family. Then I submitted it to the Emirates competition, which is part of the Abu Dhabi film festival, and it got picked up so I was really happy. The film was nothing great technically, but the Associated Press wrote a review about it and I put a link to the film on my site, so it went all over the world. It didn’t get a prize but it got a lot of international attention. And it made me think OK, I have people obviously interested to hear what I have to say, so maybe I should make another film.

Your documentary Women Without Shadows deals with some of the problems facing Saudi women. Was it difficult to make?

I interviewed a lot of women in my home town because women in Saudi Arabia are very much aware of the camera and they’re afraid. So I thought if they know me and know my mother they would be more at ease and would trust me. So I talked to all these women and found that they used to live in a simple society, where women were not as active as men, but they were allowed to work and go to the market and there were some freedoms. But the oil boom and urbanisation of society changed everything. What happened is that people moved from small villages in the mountain to the big cities where people were afraid of their neighbours and a lot of Islamist movements emerged. People became more restricted and that affected the whole country. Everyone became more conservative.

What is the story of your first feature film Wajda?

It’s a coming-of-age story about a little girl growing up in Saudi Arabia. She’s feisty and has a great sense of humour. She fights with a boy who acts superior because he has a bicycle, so she thinks “I’ll get a bicycle too!” and of course she finds herself face-to-face with a society where even outdoor activities are not allowed for women. So she tries to maneuver the system to get what she wants. The film is really about the spirit and how we can celebrate life. I don’t want it to be an in-your-face feminist film. It’s also about humour and about a different culture.

Is the film autobiographical?

No. I want to make an autobiographical film one day, but you have to have a lot of courage to be that close to yourself. But certainly this film involves things I grew up with and maybe there’s a little bit of myself in there, but not a lot.

When and where will you shoot the film?

We hope to start shooting by the end of the year if everything goes to plan. We haven’t decided the location yet because we’re trying to figure out the logistics. We definitely want an authentic film and authentic presentation of the culture. But Saudi Arabia is not the most friendly country to shoot in.

It can be tough to be a female director anywhere in the world – how is it to be a female filmmaker in your region?

I feel like I’m at an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s harder for me to shoot in Saudi for example – I have to be always careful and I don’t have the same liberty of movement like men. Also I wanted to set up my own production company in Saudi Arabia and I wasn’t able to because I’d have to have a male manager to run it for me – so there are lots of things that are difficult. But I also feel the world is more interested in what I have to say because I’m a woman. So I’m willing to put up with some of the inconvenience if I can get my message across.

What other challenges do filmmakers face in the Gulf region?

I think it’s coming up with ideas that are intellectually very interesting and – if you want to secure money from the region – you have to also consider that it’s a conservative culture and there are many places you can’t go. So you need to work really hard on the script to come up with something smart that reflects the society. And it is difficult. I see Iranian films and I think they’re a great example of how to really have an eye, have an opinion and a vision, and be able to reflect the culture and yet get the funds from those countries.

And the other thing that is difficult is that cinematically we are isolated although now we have the Dubai and Abu Dhabi film festivals which are great. We’re starting a tradition that is becoming more part of the culture. But co-production treaties all exclude the Gulf region so European producers may become a bit reluctant because they can’t apply for the money to co-produce with us. So there are lots of logistics that need sorting.

Do you see any changes in Saudi society?

I think there’s been a lot of change. Saudis are really fun people – they love to travel and they love cinema and will go all the way to Bahrain to see films. They want to see the world and be more relaxed and have fun. So Saudi is definitely changing in the right direction – slowly but little by little.