Haifaa Al-Mansour, one of only two women directors in this year’s Venice Film Festival Competition, made history in 2012 as the first female Saudi filmmaker with her award-winning debut Wadjda. The film was the first internationally-acclaimed movie shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s first submission to the Oscars.
Al-Mansour’s new film The Perfect Candidate also breaks ground as the first to be supported by the fledgling Saudi Film Council. Written and produced by LA-based Al-Mansour and Brad Niemann, with Gerhard Meixner and Roman Paul of Razor Film Produktion in Berlin also producing, the drama tells the story of a young female doctor (newcomer Mila Alzahrani) who controversially runs for municipal office while her father is off touring the country with the re-established Saudi National Band, which had been banned under law prohibiting public music performances.
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UTA Independent Film Group handles North America. The Match Factory has international.
We caught up with Mary Shelley and Nappily Ever After director Al-Mansour to discuss her fourth feature, which she describes to us as a “serious story with heart and comedy”.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I wanted to make a film about a strong woman who takes center stage but who also needs support from other women. It’s a film about sisterhood. When it comes to leadership positions, women face similar barriers the world over. Of course this is more pronounced in the Middle East, but it’s also noticeable in the West. I felt like this was a timely story about how women can move forward.
I also wanted to tell a story about people I know. The main character is based on my sister who is a doctor. Many of my characters are based on people I know. Wadjda was based on my niece.
Part of the reason I came back to Saudi Arabia was to be near my mother who isn’t well. She loves singing but she was born in a society in which singing was seen as immoral. I think if she had been born in another environment she could have been a musical star. So, I wanted to include music and singing in this film too.
After Mary Shelley and Nappily Ever After and U.S. TV work, I felt I needed to go home. I want that balance. There aren’t many female filmmakers coming out of the Middle East and I want to tell stories about people on the margins.
When you made Wadjda you had to film from the back of cars to avoid trouble as a female filmmaker in a deeply conservative society. To what extent was the experience different this time?
When I made Wadjda there was more anxiety. I grew up in a world where my voice shouldn’t be heard and I should be covered up. Accessibility is better now. There’s still bureaucracy but we had the police on our side this time to help us on the ground. There were still people who protested and tried to interrupt the filming and we needed to call the police. There’s a long way to go in Saudi Arabia in terms of investment and education but there’s also a sense of excitement. For example, we shot a concert in a small town and people came to us and thanked us for filming there. The young girls were so excited to be part of it. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago. There is less of a sense now that music will corrupt young girls’ souls. Younger people are less resistant to change.
Will the film be allowed to find an audience in Saudi Arabia?
I think and hope so. I’m happy to work with the authorities to make sure it meets any requirements. I’m sure it will be controversial: it is a story about a woman trying to find her voice. But we’re working on it. We don’t have a distributor yet. It’s not easy. The industry is still in its infancy. It was the same with Wadjda. Some distributors in the Middle East are reluctant to take on Saudi films, which they don’t think will make money. So an arthouse Saudi movie is certainly a challenging proposition. We need to find the right partner.
Saudi Arabia announced its first international film festival earlier this year. Could the Red Sea Film Festival be a good platform for this movie?
It could be. It’s amazing to have a festival in Saudi Arabia and to bring outsiders into the country. It could be a great place to launch films. Of course, for our film it depends on timing.
Do you expect the festival to be well-attended by international industry?
I really hope people attend. Art improves tolerance. We shouldn’t give up on art. Progress in civilization comes from people coming together to make something meaningful and events like this will help young Saudi filmmakers find their voices.
Your personal story is an amazing one of female agency and self-empowerment. This has also been a major theme in your movies. This year there has been consternation from many over the lack of women directors in Venice’s Competition. At the same time there are places for polarizing male directors. How do you feel about that?
I don’t want to speak about Polanski or any others. That’s up to the festival. When it comes to the lack of women directors, that doesn’t begin with Venice. The issue comes earlier. As filmmakers, middle aged white men certainly get more chances in the business and they tend to have bigger budgets, better access to talent etc so the playing field isn’t level. We should give women more voices and opportunities but women don’t always get the same chances. There is change on its way. But I think that change needs to come earlier, that’s where the issue starts. All festivals need to give women more representation. It’s not only Venice.
To an extent, there seems to be a divergence in philosophy between European festivals and North American festivals when it comes to the filmmakers they will and won’t host in the #MeToo era…
I think that’s partly because #MeToo and Times Up were generated out of the U.S. We hope that other countries will catch up. I have a lot of respect for festivals that stand for higher morals and who give voices to women and those who are under-represented. It’s time we heard from everyone and those we haven’t heard from as much in the past.
Is this the kind of thing you would discuss with Alberto Barbera [Venice’s festival head]?
I think Alberto has probably heard enough about this [laughs]. I’m grateful to Venice for launching my career [the festival launched Wadjda]. They have been with me from the beginning so maybe I’m a little biased.
I’m aware you might not be able to discuss this but how do you assess Saudi Arabia’s standing in the film world at the moment? Perception has been complicated further by the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi…
I’m not political so don’t really want to comment on that. Art is important for any culture. Art helps build communities. We should help it grow everywhere.
You are one of three women on Saudi Arabia’s new 13-member board of the General Authority for Culture, which oversees cultural and artistic development in the country. How is that going?
I think that structure is changing. There is a new set-up from what I understand. What we were selected for has been incorporated into something else so we haven’t been doing meetings.
You have an animation called Miss Camel in the works. What else will be taking up your time?
Yes, we’re making Miss Camel with U.S. animation house Shadow Machine. I’ll probably make a live action film before that because the animation will take a few years. I’ll be hustling. I’m directing an episode of upcoming Showtime series Good Lord Bird shortly. That’s with Ethan Hawke. The writing is superb and it’s cinematic. There is so much great TV around. It’s a great world for risk-taking. It feels harder to take risks in film at the moment.
Everyone is so busy making TV and superhero movies. I guess your superhero call is imminent…
[Laughs] I’d love to make one with a kick-ass female superhero…