Haifaa al-Mansour is the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia and is regarded as one of the most significant cinematic figures in the Kingdom. She finished her Bachelor’s degree in Literature at the American University in Cairo and completed a Master’s degree in Directing and Film Studies at the University of Sydney. The success of her three short films, “Who?” (1997), “The Bitter Journey” (2000) and “The Only Way Out (2001) as well as the international acclaim of her award-winning 2005 documentary, “Women Without Shadows,” influenced a whole new wave of Saudi filmmakers and made the issue of opening cinemas in the Kingdom a front-page discussion. Within the Kingdom, her work is both praised and vilified for encouraging discussions on topics generally considered too taboo, like tolerance, the dangers of orthodoxy, and the need for Saudis to take a critical look at their traditional and restrictive culture. She 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. She later directed “Mary Shelley” (2017) and “Nappily Ever After” (2018). Her new film, “The Perfect Candidate,” also breaks ground as the first to be supported by the fledgling Saudi Film Council and was one of only two films directed by women in the Official Competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with Haifaa al-Mansour at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Perfect Candidate” also screened in the Contemporary World Cinema section.
How did the film come about? Why did you decide to come back to Saudi Arabia?
Haifaa al-Mansour: After Wadjda, I worked on two films in Hollywood and in the UK and I felt I wanted to come back and do something more intimate about my family, about things I understand. Also, Saudi Arabia is going through a phase of allowing the arts back and film is legal, so I wanted to be part of that conversation and contribute to the change that is happening and hopefully make the margin of freedom a little bit wider. It is important to bring art to conservative places. I feel it is not going to be easy. People reject it, but it is a fight worth fighting.
Aren’t you afraid that, for instance, your film is too hopeful too soon?
H.A.-M.: Maybe! It has a bitter end, a sad end, but I feel like we should not give in to despair. Once I give in to despair, I’ll have a bleak look onto everything; it just breaks you, it is hard to continue and I think keeping that hope alive is very important for other artists, for the country itself – having that prospect that we can do it, we can survive and we can make something. Also, it is not my approach; I don’t like to complain about things even when I was making Wadjda. It is a hard place when it comes to work in the Middle East, it is really tough. You have to be completely covered and you have to be followed, a man has to manage your life… But, for me, to celebrate a survivor in that culture is better than deepening the victimhood, than drilling on the victims. It is sad, it doesn’t work for me as a person. I feel like it is important to just push for change and have this outlook that it will happen; that we will make it happen.
It is true. In Wadjda, you show a very headstrong girl as your protagonist with a dream that can instigate positive change. Can you talk about that and the fact that you make films about empowered women/girls who empower other women and people?
H.A.-M.: Absolutely! Empowered women and people! People see themselves in those stars. Mila [Al Zahrani] is a beautiful actress. People want to see themselves like her and when you give them a person who is willing to put herself out there, willing to go into a tent full of men and just say what she exactly thinks of them at that moment, it’s not easy; it’s not easy for anyone! Imagine you go into a room full of old men, it’s tough! It’s about sending the message: “OK, we can do it!” It is important and empowered and self-empowered. You don’t wait for someone to tell you who you are. You have to find that fire from within.
Exactly! It doesn’t only apply to Saudi Arabia. It is a universal story. It doesn’t have to begin and end there. It crosses borders. We can all relate to her and identify with her and it is what makes it all the more powerful.
H.A.-M.: I agree with you completely! I think we have a sisterhood! It is definitely more pronounced in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia. Even here, when they run for Office, they criticize the way they look: “She looks like a teacher. She looks like my mean fourth grade teacher.” People say that, right? Which means that if people say that, they will not elect her as a leader because you don’t want your “mean fourth grade teacher” to come back. So they create a lot of stereotypes about women when they run for Office, they discredit them for the way they look, for the way they talk and it is just really pure rejection of women as leaders and we see it in the West a lot, but we hope that it will change soon. People are now conscious that it is happening. Before, we were just doing it unconsciously because it is part of our life, but now we are reexamining those values and I think it is time to reexamine them in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia as well.
Exactly. Do you think The Perfect Candidate will instigate change in your home country, that it will be shown there? And what are the prospects in that sense?
H.A.-M.: I think it will be shown. We shot there and when we shot, we applied for permission to get to shoot in the States, and then we applied for permission to exhibit. I don’t know, maybe they come back with comments: “You have to cut here and there,” but in general, yes.
So, being shown in Saudi Arabia is step one, and then step two is seeing changes here and there?
H.A.-M.: Yes, and also it’s an art-house kind of film, and Saudis are used to slapstick comedy, so do I think they will go and see the movie? I am not sure, and we don’t have exhibitors who can bring it. It’s not only about being shown. Now, we have an industry. How can we make that industry effective? So there are a lot of questions in that way.
Do you think the new Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah can be a platform for the film?
H.A.-M.: I don’t know if it’s a platform for this film, but I hope it’s a platform for a lot of young Saudi filmmakers to meet other people and learn from them. A film festival means that we are celebrating art and, as I said before, celebrating art in a place like Saudi Arabia where art has been vilified and called immoral and that it corrupts your soul, it is important to bring it because it is the fundamental base for change, for a change in values, not only a change in amazing buildings and wonderful infrastructure. It is starting a change within the heart, which is what we need in the Middle East; we need that kind of shift in the mind, we need to reexamine a lot of religious literature that has been circulating in the society, we need to reexamine a lot of values and we can’t do it without art, we can’t do it without film, music, novels, all of that has to be part of that change, which is real and it is not going to be seen tomorrow, but it will gradually build a better way of life in that part of the world.
I imagine there has been a lot of change since you made Wadjda in the back of a van. Can you talk about the filmmaking process? Did you have to have a man talk to the men when you were shooting?
H.A.-M: With the actors, all the time. I dealt with the actors, especially the main cast – we knew each other, but the extras responded to the AD’s directions better. However, I had a great third AD and a second AD, who was a Saudi girl; she is really amazing! She was really going there and ordering them where to go and what to do. She was wonderful! But there is no industry in Saudi Arabia and it is really problematic. Before, with Wadjda, we didn’t have access to a lot of places, so it was really hard to shoot at the mall or shoot here or there, but now, they told us: “Yes, you can shoot wherever you want, however you like. You have permission now to shoot. This is the permission.” But we don’t have scouting managers that you can talk to and tell them: “We want this kind of location.” There are a couple of scouting directors who do one or two TV series in exactly the same house. There is no mentality. It’s a film and it’s different. They don’t even read the script, they don’t do anything, so the infrastructure is not there yet – they don’t understand the process of making a film. Casting was also very difficult. You go to a casting session; you have a schedule and nobody shows up, so I was like: “Gosh, what am I going to do?” or everybody comes totally different than what you have asked for. We need to work on creating an industry.
Do you consider yourself a trailblazer for a lot of women who make films in other parts of the world, for Saudi girls who want to be filmmakers, but also anyone within the Saudi Arabian film world – given an industry doesn’t exist, but can exist because of you?
H.A.-M.: Yes, of course. I think the film industry is starting to exist now because we have movie theaters and people think: “Yes, we can make money.” And as they feel they can make money, there will be more films, but I hope the success of this film – being in Venice and being here in Toronto and all that exposure – will hopefully make a lot of people understand that they can make films and that they don’t have to go and film in another place; that they can go and film in Saudi Arabia, because if you go and film in Saudi Arabia, it is very important to build the industry from within. If you go somewhere else, there will not be a local industry and I feel it is very important to create a local industry in Saudi Arabia because it breaks that very conservative, radical ideology in our society. People will move away from just going to the mosques, listening to all those crazy lectures and they will go and become DOPs, gaffers, etc. It will give them something better to do. As for the women, I feel that if a girl in Saudi Arabia can make it, they can too!
You worked with the DOP of Toni Erdmann, another cinematic phenomenon. Can you take about that collaboration?
H.A.-M.: Yes, I loved that film and I loved working with Patrick [Orth]. It’s always problematic to work with DOPs because most of them are men and they are tough men and they always want to bring in their strength and two cents, but Patrick was amazing. I had a really, really fun experience working with him. It was very collaborative and we had a great time and we were seeing the film the same way. And he brought so much sensibility and so much depth. I think I would tell any female filmmaker: “Patrick is amazing! We know how DOPs are. Hire Patrick!”
Can you talk about the songs in the film? They are very contradictory to what you are showing in the film.
H.A.-M: Yes, they adore women. We, as a nation, celebrate love, no matter what – segregation, etc. Ever since before History, we have celebrated love. It’s part of our DNA. Even with segregation. People date, and people love, people do everything. Even when Saudi Arabia went through a very conservative phase, poetry, which is the basis for the lyrics, survived because it is part of who they are. So it was the outlet for a lot of people to bring in a lot of emotions. It had history and that is why it is very evolved. But everything else, culturewise, stopped, especially the treatment of women. Because it is really part of the culture, people will rise up to it and will catch up to it.
Can you talk about Maryam, the protagonist? How did you write her?
H.A.-M.: Well, I based her a lot on my sister who is a physician and who’s exactly like that. And my other sister is a hustler, always wanting to make quick money, but they are best friends and it’s amazing to see their relationship, so I almost based things on reality. I just feel it makes me understand the characters more and makes them more authentic.
Do you think your filmmaking style changes when you are in the U.S. and in Saudi Arabia because of the conditions?
H.A.M.: It does change because of the conditions, but I also feel that any film, any story dictates the style. You have to tell it a certain way; it has to be done a certain way. But I definitely make more realistic films when I go back home, almost like documentary. We don’t change a lot when we go to the streets in terms of what we try to capture. Of course, it’s fiction, but it’s also opening the country so the people can see for themselves. Every frame sometimes feels simple, but there is a lot people will get from it. For example, the party scenes, when the party starts to become really big and everybody is shouting because the bride is coming and it is the most exciting moment at a wedding, the first thing women hear is that they have to cover themselves – always – so what does that do for women’s psychology? Whenever there is a big moment, you have to cover yourself… It is simple, but, for me, there are a lot of complexities behind it. Like the scene where she goes from the musician to the room, it is hard to explain how segregated the country is. It is really hard, so a scene like this really shows you the segregation.
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past two years. What is your opinion on the matter? And where do you see yourself in this discussion?
H.A.M.: I have so much respect for all women filmmakers when they go and make a name for themselves. It is hard. Women don’t get the same budgets as men. If a woman makes a hit Sundance film, she waits ten years to make another independent film, and when a man makes a hit Sundance film, the next day he is making a studio film. So you see that the trajectory of a woman’s success is not exactly the same as that of a man’s. It is changing; there is a consciousness in the industry that, we women, have to be given equal chances, but we still need to build it and when you go to a festival like Venice and only men get awards, it’s hard. If you don’t give women the chance to grow, how will they grow? If you just give it to the men who have been established forever, how can we find a place to exist next to them? And people need to take chances on new voices and, especially, films directed by women make a lot of money and we have female stars who are generating a lot of money. The map is not the same anymore, but a lot of the mentalities are still the same, so hopefully there is a push. We will see…
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And favorite film by a female filmmaker?
H.A.-M.: I like The Piano. I felt like Jane [Campion] did a great job and I’ll be in New Zealand soon and I am so excited and I hope I get to meet her!
What are your next projects?
H.A.-M.: I am going to do The Good Lord Bird with Ethan Hawke in Virginia. It’s a limited series for Showtime and I’m doing an episode.
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Photo credit: Luis Mora for TIFF x Samsung Studio.