FACT talks to Haifaa Al Mansour, the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia, about her inspirations, work ethic and her Oscar nominated film The Perfect Candidate.
How does it feel to have directed your debut film Wadjda, the first-ever film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first made by a Saudi woman?
My main motivation in making Wadjda was to make an inspiring film that was not about how women in Saudi Arabia are victims as much as how they can be leaders of change. That is still my goal as I continue to make movies about strong women around the world. I hope it had that impact, and I hope that films from the region continue to encourage positive development in the society.
Cinema will have a huge impact on public life in Saudi Arabia. The shared experience of watching a film in a public place, of feeling the story along with a theatre full of people, is such a positive and joyous experience that Saudis will finally get to enjoy in their home country. It is an important step for the country and lays the groundwork for so much positive change. Cinema is an incredible platform for a society, to ease in ideas of tolerance and acceptance, and allow local audiences to connect with the outside world and better understand us.
What was it about the story of The Perfect Candidate that encouraged your return to Saudi Arabia, to make the film?
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. 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 narrative is a deeply human one and one that we can all relate to, how important was it for you to tell this particular story?
For this film in particular, I wanted to tell a story about a culturally conservative, traditional woman who decides to embrace the changes that are taking place and go out there and seize the moment in public. The reality of her journey, of stepping out of this very private world and into the public sphere, is that it will be difficult, and lots of people will be critical of her choices, but it will ultimately open up a whole new world for her. I want to stress to the women how important it is to go out there and take a chance, even if you don’t have any experience in doing so.
I also wanted to take a moment to celebrate the strong artistic and cultural legacy of Saudi Arabia and tell a story that stresses how important it is that we build upon those traditions as the foundation for our societies development. So much of our music, theatre, stories, and all forms of artistic expression were almost erased from our culture entirely, so I felt like we needed a story that reminded people of the strong artistic traditions we have, and how they can help us as we move forward into an exciting future.
Are there any autobiographical elements in The Perfect Candidate?
I share a lot of Mariam’s determination, and a desire to just do my job the best I can. I guess I am kind of crazy in the same way, in that I just go after the things I believe are right and push on the best I can. But I also feel very close to the father’s character in the film, as I feel strongly that now is the time to honour the sacrifices and commitment that artists and musicians made to keep our artistic culture alive over the past few decades. They faced a lot of criticism and very limited opportunities for so long, so I really felt proud to honour all of the musicians in the film and give them a platform for their music to be heard. It was really amazing to shoot the concert scenes and to see all of the extras dancing and enjoying the music. It was very special for me.
From the lack of resources at her clinic to her surprise run for office at the local elections. The character of Maryam shows unwavering resilience throughout the film. How important was it for you to have a strong female lead?
Through my films, I always focus on female protagonists who want to work hard and do their job to the best of their abilities. For this film, I wanted to create a character that is very much representative of the mainstream mentality of Saudi women. She covers her face and follows the cultural norms of the society, but ends up pushing boundaries because she wants to do her job well. The restrictions that keep her from performing her work in the ways that would best benefit the society frustrate her and force her to think outside the box. She is not a rebel for the sake of rebellion, she is someone that knows that her work can make the country a better place and simply wants to remove the barriers that keep her from accomplishing her mission. I believe strongly that this is the way that true change comes to a society, through hard-working people who simply want to be able to reach their highest potential.
The film presents an almost documentary style in the way it was shot, drawing the viewer into the life of Maryam and her family. Was this a purposeful decision, or was it based more upon budgetary constraints?
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.
The Perfect Candidate was selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards. What was your reaction to the news?
It was incredibly moving and important for me. It’s a huge honour! To be recognised by my peers here at home and celebrated as a representative of artists from the Kingdom, is incredibly important to me. I am also very proud that The Perfect Candidate was selected into the main competition at the Venice Film Festival. It is so validating to have the film placed in the same category as the most prestigious films from across the world. It is definitely one of my favourite festivals in the world! It’s also very exciting that audiences in the Middle East can now watch the film from the comfort of their own home through OSN Store and OSN streaming.
You are seen as a trailblazer for Saudi cinema. Do you see the potential for a thriving film scene in the Kingdom and is a new wave of Saudi films on the way?
Absolutely! I am very confident that we will build up our own, vibrant local film industry, and that we will have local audiences eager to see and consume our work. But I also hope that we see our films start to travel more around the world so that international audiences get to hear from us and get a better sense of our perspective. We have had so few chances to present our work and our point of view to the rest of the world, so I think film, and the arts in general, will become a very valuable tool for us in telling our side of the story.
What are the challenges of filming in Saudi Arabia?
Well, a lot has changed since I made my first Saudi film! It was incredibly difficult to make a film in 2011, and people were still very hesitant to embrace any public form of artistic expression at that time. Film was especially seen as taboo, and the idea of opening theatre’s had become a red line that most of us thought would never be crossed. Of course, now everything is different, and we have cinemas going up all across the Kingdom. But the larger issue of a lack of infrastructure in the film industry remains. We have a lot of work to do in building up the tools and resources necessary to make quality films. We don’t have many people with experience in the field yet so putting together a crew and getting the right equipment is very difficult. Getting the proper training and education necessary to help craft and shape our stories is another key area that we need to develop. It is still a very challenging place to work, and a very closed, insular society, so it was a tough but worthwhile journey.
And it was really great to be out of the van! Being allowed to fully mix with my crew and be fully immersed in the production was amazing. It was also very exciting to have so many enthusiastic young Saudis working on the set. They are the future of the industry, and to see them giving their all to contribute and be a part of making the film was very special for me. We still have a long way to go in building our local crews and expertise, but the enthusiasm is there to build upon. It is an exciting time to be a filmmaker from Saudi Arabia!