Sometimes a bicycle is just a bicycle, but for the young protagonist of Haifaa Al Mansour's first novel, it's more like a two-wheeled freedom machine -- on which she makes the most important journey of her life.
In "The Green Bicycle," Al Mansour, a BAFTA-nominated filmmaker, tells the story of Wadjda: a schoolgirl in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who is determined to own her own bicycle despite the disapproval of her strict, traditional community. It's a story about how a tenacious girl can take control of her life against the odds, and the author has a lot in common with her 11 year-old heroine.
Al Mansour has done her own share of defiant groundbreaking on Saudi soil. Before it was a novel, "The Green Bicycle" was a film ("Wadjda"), which Al Mansour shot on location in her home country. Despite the challenges (which included directing scenes via walkie talkie, due to strict Saudi social codes that made it improper for her to be on the street in the company of her male film crew) the movie put her on the radar as one of Hollywood's up-and-coming directors to watch -- a status cemented when she was tapped to helm "A Storm in the Stars," next year's biopic about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley starring Elle Fanning.
MTV News caught up with Haifaa Al Mansour by phone to talk about her first book, her next film, and finding inspiration in stories about woman who change their own destinies.
MTV News: "The Green Bicycle" feels like such a personal, intimate story. Is there a lot of you in this book?
Haifaa Al Mansour: A lot of this comes form my childhood. I went to a similar school and all of that. I tried to make it intimate, in the way that I'm writing about people I know. And because this is for young adults, I wanted also for them to appreciate the world where they come from, to understand how it is to be in Saudi, and how hard it is for anyone to achieve peace -- but how they should work hard, because they can if they believe in themselves.
MTV: You started out as a filmmaker and brought this story from screen to page, when it's usually the other way around. Did it change at all in adaptation?
Al Mansour: It has a lot more space. When you're writing for a film, it's, "Oh, we don't have time to shoot, cut this scene," whatever. You're confined, the space. You don't want to bring in all the things around the sun. In a novel it opens up, so there are huge tons of possibilities. You can bring in the backstory of a scene and all of that, and it was really amazing. I really enjoyed it, having more space to tell the story. I felt more control.
MTV: I was stunned to find out that "Wadjda" was the first feature length film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. What was it like to make it?
Al Mansour: It was really cool to shoot in Saudi! It was difficult, because you know how it is, very conservative, and people don't like cameras. And it's a segregated country, so I wasn't able to be with the crew for a lot of the scenes where we were shooting outside. I had to be in a van.
MTV: Because you're a woman.
Al Mansour: [Laughs] Yes, because men and women are not supposed to mix in public. But it was very cool to do something exciting, like film, in a very conservative culture that is hopefully moving toward mobility and opening up. All the scary moments where you have to run away, all that was definitely worth it.
MTV: On that note, there's so much enthusiasm now, in Hollywood and in general, surrounding women's stories and girls' stories, and your work is so much a part of that.
Al Mansour: I feel like there is an audience for it, and like there's a need for it, and it's amazing that a big machine like Hollywood is pro that -- giving women a space to create, and giving more women more voices. I feel endless possibilities! And I feel like, it's not just women telling stories about women, it's not about excluding men. I feel like that is important. In a world where people are equal, I feel it's also important to have strong male characters, counterparts. Equality is important. It's about compatibility and compassion. And it's amazing. Directors and female writers, people are willing to hear from them, give them space, and believe in them. That was very hard a few years ago. I'm working on this story now, the Mary Shelley story-- she's an amazing woman that has created a very masculine genre, science fiction. And that is amazing, when you see a woman having that kind of muscle, pushing and creating that amazing legacy. It's powerful and inspiring and we should celebrate those female voices.
MTV: Where are you in the process of making "A Storm in the Stars"? Have you already begun shooting?
Al Mansour: We start filming in November. I have Elle Fanning, who is an amazing actress, to play Mary Shelley. We forget how young she was when she wrote the book!
MTV: And do you and Elle share a vision in terms of bringing her story to the screen?
Al Mansour: Definitely. Elle has this elegance, she has this strength underneath. It's amazing to have all that mixture in a young actress.
MTV: From a feminist perspective, it's interesting to see how your work -- including "The Green Bicycle" -- focuses on survival and success, rather than victimhood. Was that important to you to convey?
Al Mansour: I feel like especially in literature and movies coming from the Middle East, because it is a very harsh place for women, women are depicted as victims. Because it is hard. You cannot say it's a good place for women. But I think it is more important to give inspiring stories, so women can change that. We need to change our destinies, we need to work hard to make the situation better for ourselves.
MTV: It's important to take action.
Al Mansour: Exactly! Enjoy life and change things.And maybe by giving examples of people who achieve things, who succeed, who are proactive and being happy and facing their own destinies, rather than accepting what the world throws at at them -- we should fight! Not like street fighting, but the little act of defiance every day.
"The Green Bicycle" is available now in stores and online. "A Storm in the Stars," directed by Haifaa Al Mansour and starring Elle Fanning, will be released in 2016.