By Ali Moosavi.
Attitudes do not change easily, so part of the goal of my film is to start a dialog about the core values that are at the heart of these issues.”
Haifaa Al-Mansour, the award winning director and the first Saudi female filmmaker, has a new film, The Perfect Candidate. In a May 15 review, I described it as “a quiet gem that explores a number of deep-rooted issues regarding the rights of women in conservative societies, how women are viewed by men in these cultures, and the role of music and media in providing both joy and entertainment.” We conducted a Q & A with her regarding this film and her career.
What inspired you to write The Perfect Candidate?
There are incredible changes taking place right now at home in Saudi Arabia, and I felt like I really wanted to contribute to the positive changes taking place there. We went through such a long period of time where nothing changed, where it seemed like even the slightest openings or relaxations of the cultural restraints we lived under seemed impossible, especially when it came to the lives of women. But now the pace of change is so fast that it is hard to keep up with, and the challenge now is to encourage people to go out and make the most of the opportunities they have. Especially for women, it will take a huge shift in thinking to fully understand and embrace the freedoms they now have the chance to explore.
The rate of progress in terms of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is moving very fast. As you show in The Perfect Candidate, women can now drive. Another right, of women travelling without the husband or father’s travel permit, which is one of the issues Maryam faces in the film, has also been granted now. How has these changes affected your scripts? Do you feel that you have, perhaps in a very small way, contributed to formation of these changes?
I hope the movie contributes to the way in which people view these changes. Sometimes we get caught up in political rhetoric without fully understanding the impact of these types of restrictive practices on the lives of women. My hope is that people can better understand these issues by seeing them intimately play out within the film. As with my first film Wadjda, it wasn’t so much that bicycles were illegal for women, it was just that the society chose to limit girls ability to ride them. I wanted to show people how much it can mean to a little girl to have a bicycle, and feel the wind through her hair as she glides down the street, and how that joy is something we should encourage in our daughters.
How did you get into filmmaking? What difficulties did you face?
My journey as a filmmaker began after college. I was working for an oil company in Saudi and I felt invisible. I would try to speak up in meetings and my male colleagues would completely ignore me. I felt frustrated and alone, so I started making short films as an outlet, as a way for my voice to be heard. It was a hobby, more than anything else, but it gave me such satisfaction in the art of creation. And I submitted it to all the regional film festivals and I was shocked that one actually invited me. They were the ones that said “did you know you are the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia?” That was really something to hear, and such a motivator for me to keep going in the field.
Which filmmakers have inspired you in your work?
Jane Campion’s “The Piano” is one of my favorite films. I was lucky to get to spend some time studying it in graduate school and think about it quite often when I craft my own work. It is a masterful work, and there is so much you can get out of it on multiple viewings. I love the Dardenne brothers- their movie Rosetta affected me very deeply.
With Wadjda you made history as the first Saudi woman filmmaker and also the first Saudi film to have such a global success. How has this level of success affected your work? Do you feel an extra burden of responsibility as the unofficial global ambassador of Saudi cinema?
I’ve always felt a responsibility to present an honest window into Saudi Arabia for the rest of the world, because there are just so few depictions of us available. Foreign audiences seem to see us in black and white (partially because we dress that way!) because they have never been given a full picture of who we are. I definitely wanted to make the film feel “real,” and present a realistic look into Saudi life. It is rare that we get to see ourselves on screen in a documentary-like way, so I work hard to make it as authentic as possible. Showing this story in this way is the key to getting that message across.
Most of the cast of The Perfect Candidate, and indeed Wadjda, appear to be new faces in the world of cinema, but give commendable performances. How difficult was it to find actors for the film? Did the female actors face any resistance from their families?
It is always challenging to cast in Saudi Arabia, partially because of social constraints, but mainly because of the lack of proper casting agencies and trained professional actors. But I enjoy finding people that represent the essence of the characters they will portray, and building in their personal experience into their roles. So a lot of the movements and mannerisms are things that they brought from their own lives. For example, when the band is saying goodbye at the end of their tour, I gave them my directions and told them how I would like to see it performed, but then they all brought in some of their own things: like a kiss on the forehead, which was a really nice and sincere gesture. It was very real.
How is the film industry in Saudi Arabia and how do you see its future? How involved are you in expanding it?
I’m very excited to see real effort being made to build up the infrastructure for a film industry in the Kingdom. We have a long way to go, but there are deep investments being made to lay the foundation for it that will pay off in the very near future. And I’m so happy to see cinemas in the Kingdom. COVID was a setback for theaters everywhere, but I am very hopeful that we will see audiences packing into the theaters again very soon.
One of the themes that you tackle in the film, is the attitude of men towards women in paternal and conservative societies like KSA. Are you seeing positive changes in this regard too? For example, towards women singers?
Attitudes do not change easily, so part of the goal of my film is to start a dialog about the core values that are at the heart of these issues. Women singers have been vilified for generations, so it is not an attitude that is going to change overnight. Hopefully seeing a woman who felt the same way, who resented her mother trying to be a singer and the stigma it cast over their family, finally accept her mother’s passion for the art, will help people reexamine their perception of these types of things.
After Wadjda you worked in USA for a while, making a historical drama (Mary Shelly) and a romantic comedy (Nappily Ever After) and a few episodes of various TV series. What have you gained from that experience and how has it helped you?
I’ve been doing a lot of TV lately and it has been an incredibly valuable experience. It is so much faster than film – which can take years of development. In TV you sort of parachute in and have to learn the different ways that each show are done, and the special vision that each show runner has for the show. And I’ve gotten to do all sorts of new things, from special effects to period dramas, so it is a lot of fun to explore all of these different genres.
Do you plan to mix working in Saudi with scripts written by yourself with directing other people’s scripts in USA or Europe?
Yes, I am very excited about a film with Netflix that was recently announced called The Selection, based on the young adult novel series. I am already being bombarded on social media by young women who grew up reading the books and have very strong opinions about every aspect of the story- and especially casting! And I am always working at getting other projects going, both at home and abroad, so I am excited to get more projects out into the world!
What has been the reaction of Saudi people and media towards you? Have your films received a lot of publicity there? Have Wadjda and The Perfect Candidate received public screenings in Saudi Arabia?
Both Wadjda and The Perfect Candidate have been shown a great deal at home, and I’ve received a lot of positive feedback from Saudis wherever I go. It is always special for me to run into Saudi audience members at different film festivals around the world, as I take a special pride in sharing a piece of home with them wherever they are.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).