New York-trained Saudi actress-helmer Ahd Kamel is most recognized for her role as the teacher in “Wadjda.” As a director, she received attention with her 2013 short “Sanctity,” which premiered at the Berlinale. She’s shooting her first feature, in her home city of Jeddah.
Tell us about your latest project.
The film is called “My Driver and I,” and it’s a coming-of-age story about a Saudi girl growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, and her friendship with her driver. I’m making this film because I grew up with a driver, who practically raised me, took me back and forth to school every single day, and when my parents passed away when I was a teenager, he was the only person who could rein me in. He really taught me a lot of the lessons I learned in life, but I only came to realize this about 10 years ago, after he passed away. It really hit me that I had taken this person for granted, and I also realized that I knew very little about his life. So essentially this film is an homage; it’s a way of saying thank you, and at the same time it’s about independence: He drives her in a car but at some point she has to take the wheel of her own life.
It’s entirely Saudi funded. Did you
look for international co-producers?
I looked at co-productions, but Saudi is a very unusual place because there are no co-production deals with any other country, so you run into many different problems, and I really wanted it to have the spirit of the people of my city. I also was fixated on trying to get money here because there are a lot of art patrons, and people who believe that this is essential for us to document a piece of culture that is almost non-existent now.
With the high profile of Saudi films “Wadjda” and “Barakah Meets Barakah,” have things been easier or harder for you?
It’s hard to say. “Wadjda” was afforded certain things that we are not afforded now. Now the government is alert. But the government is actually supportive, even if they’re not very vocal about it. Behind the scenes I got permission from the censorship department. Not every film that’s coming out of Saudi is trying to make Saudi look bad. In fact, for me it’s more about looking like a human being. I’m just so sick and tired of this idea that you’re Saudi, therefore you’re a subject to be studied, especially as a woman.
What kind of distribution can you expect?
We already have a distribution deal with Mad Solutions for the Arab region. In terms of Saudi I don’t know exactly how it’s going to come out, but it’s the Magic Kingdom, and something will appear! I want to capitalize on the market here, and develop this idea that artwork is not for free. The problem in Saudi is that there isn’t that understanding of what goes into making something, so they want to just go on YouTube and find it. But I’m 100% confident that people will pay $5 to watch the film, instead of trying to bootleg it.
Do you feel a responsibility to change
the discourse about Saudi women?
It’s not a deliberate thing. I like to look at myself as a filmmaker, an artist who happens to be from Saudi. I never thought in my life that being a Saudi woman would be trendy! And now, it is super trendy for some reason. So if I can use it. … It’s kind of like the apocryphal Gandhi saying, “Be the change you want to see.” The fact that I exist means there already is a change.