The first Saudi woman to direct a feature film, Haifa Al Mansour broke out with Wadjda in 2011 and has since become a feminist force to be reckoned with in the entertainment industry. Fast-forwarded nearly a decade, and her political parable, The Perfect Candidate, which she co-wrote alongside Brad Niemann, is a compelling, impactful and important story that should be at the top of everyone’s to-watch list. Cosmo’s editor in chief, Milli Midwood, caught up with now LA-based Haifa to talk about her new work, which is an unflinching look at resilience, sisterhood and equality.
“The idea for The Perfect Candidate came from my mum; my mum loved to sing,” Haifa tells me – I can feel her smiling down the phone. “Back in the day, Saudi women were not encouraged to take up professions like singing or acting, which is an industry my mum would have loved to go into. I have always been inspired by the act of defiance, and although my mother was discouraged from performing, she continued to sing all the time – so I wanted to tell a story similar to that.”
Whilst Haifa was writing this story a few years ago, Saudi Arabia lifted the ban of women being allowed to drive. In the same year, they legalised cinemas and gave women and children access to sports arenas. So is it still a surprise that The Perfect Candidate, at the end of a decade in which the Kingdom confronted female power in a whole new way, feels positively radical?
Chronicling a young Arab woman's political awakening, the plot depicts Maryam (played by Mila Al Zahrani), a headstrong girl with a dream to instigate positive change, being routinely patronised by her male supervisors – a theme that’s all too real in the Western world, just as much as the Middle East.
The film was a success, perhaps in part because of the novelty of feminist dialogue and characterisation to come out of Saudi — but also because of Maryam, the fictitious it-girl of the moment.
“I think Maryam’s character is like the quintessential, historic girl in the Arab world,” explains Haifa. “She tries to do everything right, she works hard, and she got into medical school, but her voice is still not heard. It’s very frustrating. Even in the West, misogyny is subtle with you. It hits you without you even knowing, because you think you’re in the Western world and it doesn’t affect you, but it’s there.”
“But Maryam decided she will not accept that, and I think that this is a message to a lot of young women. It is important now to be brave enough and to stick to what you want. It’s not about getting angry, it’s about changing a lot of what we have all been subjected to for so long: sexism and misogyny.”
Okay, so the movie has been incredibly well received by women, but surely, I think, Haifa is troubled by critical reaction from the men of her home country? I can imagine that few male critics will have grasped what the film’s true intentions are. “Not really,” she shrugs the question off. “When I first started making movies over 10 years ago, I did receive a bit of backlash, but over time there has been more acceptance of feminist female voices. I also think it’s because I don’t clash with people. My films are not written to attack anyone. The movie was a chance to push for women to have more of a voice. From the opening scene I wanted to establish the world, and I wanted to establish also what it means to go against that world, like, against tradition. I understand that I come from a conservative society, so I always approach my movies with respect; I don’t want people to not watch my films because they are offended. I maintain that respect and that I think that people appreciate that.”
“We shot the last outdoor concert scene on the outskirts of Riyadh, where it’s very conservative, but the location is so spectacular, so I knew we had to take the risk. When we were shooting, the police showed up to give us protection. The mayor even came in and thanked me for putting his town on the map and giving it that exposure. I felt like that had never happened before, and I think that people are slowly starting to appreciate the impact of film. I thought it was moving.”
Despite the challenging themes and the distressing discourse (the“my husband will kill me if I vote for you” scene springs to mind) that has characterised so much of Haifa’s film, she’s hopeful about the future and the lasting message she wants the movie to leave. “The film is about celebrating woman and bringing them to the forefront of the public space. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be a journey, and we all have to work hard to make it happen and etch our message deeper in society.
“But we wouldn’t have any of this without having art. I think art is the heart of any nation and I hope people will go and watch the film and enjoy being with Mila’s character and enjoy the music.”
“There is still a lot we need to change in cinema. I think we are heading in the right direction, we have people like, of course, Nadine Labaki, who is creating films that are going international, but we still don’t see a lot of female directors or female writers. It is still a world which is still very much dominated by men - in front of the cinema and behind. And women, a lot of the time are just, like, supporting roles. Every now and then we see an amazing film where the woman is the lead, but that is not very common.”
“I feel there are a lot of progressive ideas ahead. Now we have social media, there a lot of exposure to images and to ideas, so people aren’t as sheltered anymore - especially young people. Young people have so much more awareness now, so I think we are going to start seeing more films that are elegant, smart and probably quite surprising to us.”
Haifa Al Mansour