Ebertfest Q&A: Haifaa Al-Mansour and more
Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first woman to make a feature-length film shot ("Wadjda") entirely in Saudi Arabia.
How did you find Waad Mohammed, the girl who plays the title character?
Casting the film was very difficult since we can't have open casting calls in Saudi because of the sensitivities toward women acting. In Saudi Arabia, we don't have casting agencies and we always have to depend on word of mouth, so finding Waad was not easy.
We had to rely on the small production companies that recruited kids for local festival presentations. One of them happened to be Waad, who came very late in the auditioning process.
Our German producers were all about planning and stressing how everything has to be on time but in Saudi Arabia nothing is on time and punctuality is irrelevant. They were pretty nervous until about one week before principal shooting then Waad comes in wearing jeans and an '80s style jacket.
She was listening to Justin Bieber and she did not speak English, but she understood Justin Bieber and his songs, so she was a great example of modern youth culture. We knew right away she would be a good fit for the part.
What kind of obstacles did you face in making the movie? How much of it did you direct from a van, etc.?
It took me about five years — from the time I conceived of the story to the time we finished shooting. Without the basic infrastructure of a film industry, every aspect of the film's development presented challenges.
Filming in Riyadh was quite a challenge. People aren't used to having cameras around so we were especially cautious, even though we had permission to shoot in public. For a lot of the outdoor scenes we knew we were going to face a lot of difficulties, from conservative bystanders to sandstorms to nervous partners, so we had to be ready to work with what we had on any given day.
We used a handheld camera sometimes to save time and give the actors freedom with their movements. I did occasionally direct from a protected spot, like a van, so people wouldn't see me (a woman) interacting publicly with the crew (men). But I was constantly going back and forth to be with the actors and make sure we were getting everything right.
Ann Hui, Hong Kong's most famous director, is a pioneer of the Hong Kong New Wave. She worked in television before making films that explore social issues.
I read that because of the success of "A Simple Life" you would retire. Is that true?
I might have to retire anytime due to my health, but so far I have not.
If you keep making films, is there a social or any other kind of issue you would like to make a movie about and why?
My ideas for films come from books, the newspaper and stories told by friends. "A Simple Life" was based on the real story of Roger Lee, my producer. He first told me the story and I said I was very interested. He came up with a pile of notes of his recollections of (the servant) Tao Je; on the basis of these notes we wrote the script.
Of all your movies, which one do you most like or feel most satisfied with?
I like my first film, "The Secret," best. It was based on a real murder story which happened in the early '70s. I like it because it is my first film (released in '79) and it turned out better than I expected. (In 2012 Hui became the first female director to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society.)
How do you feel about coming to Ebertfest this year?
Last year I was invited but could not come because I was in the middle of shooting my latest film, "The Golden Era," in Shanghai. I wanted to come this year if only in memory of Roger Ebert. To do homage.
Roger Ebert considered Ramin Bahrani one of the best young directors in America. "Goodbye Solo" is Bahrani's third film to be shown at Ebertfest.
In a way, you will make two appearances at the 2014 Ebertfest — as yourself in "Life Itself," visiting Roger in the hospital, and with your movie, "Goodbye Solo." How close were you and Roger?
I was lucky to not only have Roger's support but also his friendship. My memories of being with Roger and Chaz at the Conference on World Affairs (in Boulder, Colo.) especially mean a lot to me. I cherish and miss our correspondences about films, books and life. I re-read our emails to reference his thoughts ... or when I miss him.
What has Roger's support over the years for your work meant for you and your movies?
There is no doubt that Roger's support pushed my films into the public eye more than anyone else's. My career would be very different if not for Roger. That we came to know each other only added fuel to my desire to make better films — films that I hoped he would be proud of and that would belong to the canon of great cinema that he supported and wrote brilliantly about throughout his life.
You basically make "neo-realist" films. Any desire to turn out a commercial blockbuster?
I am constantly trying to push myself and risk more with my work. Each new film is toward that including "99 HOMES." I am currently in post-production.
The story is about Dennis Nash (Garfield) who plays an out-of-work father in Orlando 2010 who struggles to get back the home that his family was evicted from by working for the greedy real estate broker (Shannon) who's the source of his frustration.
How did you come up with the idea for "Goodbye Solo" and how do you feel about that movie now, particularly compared to your other movies?
The idea began when I met a Senegalese taxi driver in my hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C., and started hanging out with him.
I would see an old man sitting in a wheelchair by the side of the road everyday. I wondered what would happen if he got into the taxi and the story kept developing from there.