Trailblazing Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour doesn’t want to talk politics.
The oil-rich kingdom’s first female director, who in 2012 broke taboos with ”Wadjda,” about a 10-year-old girl who wants to flout the rules and ride a bicycle, is back in Venice with competition pic “The Perfect Candidate.” The new film focuses on a female Saudi doctor who challenges the patriarchal system there by running as a candidate in municipal elections in a tight race against a male opponent.
But asked whether politics have affected Saudi’s embryonic film industry since a 35-year ban on moviegoing was lifted in 2017, she said: “No matter what the political situation is … art should always prevail and be given top priority, because it is … what pushes for civilization to grow, what shapes people’s minds and hearts. It’s important not to give up on that.” She declined to be drawn into specifics.
Al-Mansour is vocal about female empowerment in Saudi Arabia, where women were recently granted the right to travel abroad without permission of their male relatives and were finally allowed last year to drive. Both steps are considered to be the result of years of activism. Significantly, Al-Mansour’s film “The Perfect Candidate” starts with the protagonist driving a car.
Asked what the next steps are, she said that change needs to come from within Saudi women themselves. “We are programmed since we were kids to shy away from the spotlight or from voicing our opinions, and that it’s more honorable to be completely veiled,” she said.
For women to wrest themselves out of that way of thinking is a huge challenge. “It has to do with a woman’s psychology,” she said. “I think the next step is to empower women to feel that it’s OK to do that. And now is the time to move forward.”
Which seems to be the whole point of “The Perfect Candidate.”
In her director’s note, Al-Mansour wrote that the film’s subtext is the need to celebrate and honor Saudi Arabia’s strong cultural and artistic traditions and to let them guide efforts to develop and modernize the country, where until recently all public displays of art were forbidden.
“In Saudi Arabia we have this tradition of celebrating poetry and singing. It’s all oral,” she said, noting that a lot of that tradition is actually about empowering women.
“Even though Saudi wasn’t a very advanced society before oil was struck and ultraconservative literature started dominating society … the previous culture was different,” Al-Mansour said. “So it’s important to go back to the roots.”
On a broader level, she says that “The Perfect Candidate” simply champions individualism.
“We all dress [the] same — the men dress the same, the women dress the same,” Al-Mansour said. “It’s, like, tribal. And individualism is something that we need to cultivate and that we really need to start building.”
Unlike with “Wadjda,” Al-Mansour is confident that her new film will actually screen in her country, though not without some challenges. “We definitely have movie theaters now [with a handful of screens], and it will be seen,” she said. “But distributors are still trying to figure out how to market and position a Saudi art film.”