“A woman’s voice is her nakedness,” says Ms. Hussa, a character in Haifaa al-Mansour’s debut feature Wadjda (2012).

It is a threat delivered as a warning: the film is set in Saudi Arabia in the 2000s, and Ms. Hussa, the headmistress of an all-girls school, is determined to uphold the restrictive local gender norms. For both al-Mansour, however, who wrote and directed the film, and her rebellious heroine, the 10-year-old Wadjda, it is a mobilizing mantra.

“It’s important for us women not to follow rules,” says al-Mansour over the phone. “We’ve been following rules for so long. It’s about time to break them.”

Haifaa al-Mansour in Los Angeles, 2018, by Josie Simonet Haifaa al-Mansour in Los Angeles, 2018

Much has been written about Wadjda and its symbolic importance: it was the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature by a female Saudi filmmaker. To circumvent the country’s conservative customs, al-Mansour famously directed much of Wadjda via radio whilst hidden inside a Hyundai van. But even beyond this ground-breaking, it is a remarkable film, a deceptively charming and hopeful examination of girlhood and womanhood.

al-Mansour was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. Growing up, her father, the poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, would regularly rent VHS tapes for the family. Together with her 11 siblings, al-Mansour watched classics of every genre.

I remember watching Snow White, which was amazing... and the horror film The Evil Dead.

I was seven and my little sister was five…
that one, for sure, left an impression.

Her love of storytelling was further cemented at school, where she would happily write and direct her own plays. After she completed a degree in literature at the American University in Cairo, al-Mansour returned to Saudi Arabia and began working at an oil company. “It’s a very man’s world and as a young woman, I felt invisible and wanted a voice,” she says. She remembered the joy she felt creating theater as a child and “wanted to go back to that place.”

She began making short films and submitting to them regional film festivals. She was accepted into the Emirates Competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and she was sent a ticket to attend. “It gave me self-esteem. I wasn’t invisible anymore,” she tells us. Then, in 2005, Women Without Shadows, al-Mansours 45-minute documentary on female roles in Saudi culture took home the Critics’ Award and Gold Dagger for Best Documentary at the Muscat Film Festival in Oman.

Last month saw the U.S. release of al-Mansour’s first English-language feature, the literary biopic Mary Shelley. Starring the always-sophisticated Elle Fanning, Mary Shelley follows the titular author, born Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin at the turn of the 19th century, through her tumultuous young adulthood up to the publication of her first novel, Frankenstein. We see her first as a restless romantic stuck in her father’s struggling London bookshop with a resentful stepmother (Joanne Froggatt) and equally restless stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Bel Powley).

We watch her fall in love with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth) and the greater world he seems to promise her. And we see her struggle: with the formidable reputation of her parents and her own expectations of herself; with her husband’s narcissism and fickle affections; with the death of her first child in infancy; with her quest to establish and be recognised for her own voice.

Haifaa al-Mansour in LOS ANGELES, 2018

In Shelley, al-Mansour has found something of kindred spirit, a Wadjda from another world. Though centuries and continents apart, it is easy to see the parallels between Shelley and Wadjda, and perhaps even more so between Shelley and al-Mansour herself. Both storytellers had unconventional upbringings and came of age in choking patriarchies. Both refused to accept the paths put forward for them and became pioneers with their art.

Indeed, with Frankenstein, Shelley took on traditional male themes—scientific developments, creation, horror—and made them her own. As al-Mansour emphasises. “Jane Austen was Mary’s contemporary and the style of the time. Austen wrote about love and marriage and jealousy, and was very successful, so a lot of people expected Mary to write something like that.” Instead, in Frankenstein, “she created a genre ... there was a lot of loss in Mary’s life. She lost her mom at a young age, she lost multiple children. She was always surrounded by death. And that is why we have this book about recreating life.”

In spite of cultural preponderance of Frankenstein—or, more specifically, Dr. Frankestein’s monster—Mary Shelley is still a relatively unknown figure. “Frankenstein is a classical work that is portrayed on TV every day and we still don’t know much about her,” says al-Mansour.

If Mary Shelley were a man, you would have seen her on the cover of Time magazine.

In Mary Shelley, al-Mansour emphasises the contradictions of her heroine, particularly regarding Shelley’s devotion to Bysshe Shelley and complicated relationship with her stepsister Claire, who was at once her closest confidante and most determined rival. “Claire was always in the shadow of Mary,” explains al-Mansour. “But there is a moment in the film where they become almost like one. Their journeys are very similar. They fell in love and wanted to see more of the world and there were a lot of disappointments for both of them.”

Haifaa al-Mansour in Los Angeles, 2018, by Josie Simonet Haifaa al-Mansour in Los Angeles, 2018

al-Mansour’s own relationship with Shelley is complicated, too. There is admiration and esteem there, of course, and recognition, but also an acknowledgement of their differences, particularly with regards to some of Shelley’s more extreme decisions. “If Mary Shelley were my daughter, and my daughter wanted to elope with a married man, I would feel really terrible,”

al-Mansour tells us. “But Mary Shelley did that, and the turmoil and exhausting relationship she had with Percy resulted in an amazing book. People who are willing to do things, to breakaway and experiment with morality and the way that people have established it—it is kind of admirable. That is how we create great literature and leave a legacy to the world,” she continues.

I think a lot about the women who broke tradition, who wanted to be who they were without really being afraid of being judged. That is a quality we need to cultivate as women because still we are vulnerable when it comes to not being accepted.

TEXT: Emma Brown
PHOTOGRAPHY: Josie Simonet / @sim.onet