Seven-minute movie by female Saudi director debuts on Internet

Monday, June 2, 2003

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia -- The film is only seven minutes long. It was shot with a video camera, cost $1,000 to make and can only be seen on the Internet.

And it is remarkable. "Who...?" was filmed by Haifaa al-Mansour in this conservative Muslim country, which has no movie industry or even theaters. Some Saudis believe it's against their religion to own TV sets or show images of the human form.

Al-Mansour is believed to be the only active female Saudi director. She was inspired to make "Who...?" by rumors that spread a few months ago in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and Khobar, a town in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

There were whispers of a serial killer roaming the streets targeting women. The rumors were so strong, officials denied the killer's existence in statements carried by local papers.

"The film shows that people were frightened by something," said al-Mansour, who declined to give her age but appears to be in her late 20s. "It's their story brought back to them."

"Who...?" was screened last month at a film festival in the United Arab Emirates, where it won a lot of encouragement but no prize.

"The film was very good. I would have given her a prize because the movie had the potential of being turned into a long feature film," said Mohammed Rida, a movie critic for two Arab dailies who is based in Los Angeles.

"The film is also very exceptional in that it was made by a Saudi woman," added Rida, who lectured at the festival.

"Who...?" begins with this statement: "We fear the unknown and yet some of us are without faces, and the question remains: 'Who?"'

In the opening shot, a woman, played by al-Mansour, is having a bad dream in which her sister is being strangled by a man.

In the morning, relieved it was only a dream, the woman goes about her daily routine. She sees her son off to school and then goes to the kitchen to chop tomatoes for lunch.

The doorbell rings. A beggar cloaked head to toe in a black abaya -- which is how women in Saudi Arabia are required to dress in public -- thrusts a letter into her hand, telling a tale of woe about a sick husband.

The woman goes to her room to get some money without closing the door in the beggar's face, which would have been considered impolite. When she returns, the beggar is gone.

Shrugging her shoulders, the woman returns to the kitchen -- where the beggar is waiting. The beggar grabs the woman and bangs her head against a table.

Screaming, "Who? Who? Who?" the woman manages to pull down the attacker's veil to discover, just before her death, that the assailant is a man.

The ending was shocking partly because in one of the world's most conservative countries, it is rare for anyone to even imply criticism of the requirement that women fully veil themselves.

Al-Mansour said her aim was to show that times have changed in the kingdom, and that things are often not what they seem. "I want people to know that some may use the niqab (veil) in a positive way for virtue while others would use it negatively for criminal purposes," she said. "I wanted them to stop and think about it."

"Society is not as safe as before," she added. "People need to be cautious and stop taking their safety for granted."

Al-Mansour, an English-language teacher, had dreamed as a child of making movies.

She began "Who...?" by watching films critically and reading books about film. Then she wrote her script, bought a video camera and enlisted her sister Sara, brother Haroon and nephew Abdul-Aziz as actors. She asked a friend to compose music and another to edit the film -- all for free.

"Who...?" was filmed in one month. Al-Mansour shot interiors in the Khobar apartment where she lives with her parents and in her brother's apartment. For exteriors, she shot early in the mornings to avoid upsetting people not used to seeing a camera on the street.

Al-Mansour said she would not have been able to make "Who...?" without the backing of her family. Women in Saudi Arabia live strict lives. They cannot get an education or a job, travel or even stay at a hotel without permission from a male guardian.

"My family never said it's a shame to make the film or to have my name made public," said al-Mansour. "They were very interested in the movie and gave constructive criticism."

Al-Mansour said her only wish was for people to see the movie on the big screen. Instead, she had to e-mail it to friends and relatives and posted it on her Web sites with English and French subtitles.

"E-mail was not the best medium. It's informal," said al-Mansour. "I wish people had seen it on bigger and official screens."

Al-Mansour said it's time things changed for the movie industry in the Persian Gulf, pointing out that even a country as conservative as Iran has a vibrant film industry.

"Movies are important. They're entertaining, they carry a message and they document the history of the country," said al-Mansour.

Eventually, al-Mansour would like to make a long feature film. But for the time being, she's putting the final touches on another seven-minute movie, "Bereavement of the Fledgling." It's about a young village boy who goes to the city for an education and never returns.

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