Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa on how movies, art transcend politics
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 movie-going 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 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.”
It’s hard to know who’s the perfect audience for “The Perfect Candidate”. Even more than in that debut hit, her latest is clearly designed to demythologize the Kingdom, taking a host of cultural signifiers and parading them out in the cinematic equivalent of billboard-sized letters to show that Saudi society is heterogeneous and mutable. The script is so simplistic in how it runs through a checklist of cultural practices — women’s dress, gendered spaces, the role of music – that it reduces the people themselves to unsophisticated representatives of change, and yet its welcome message of female empowerment will be embraced by Western audiences pleased to see women removing their niqabs. How it will play regionally is difficult to guess, though it’s encouraging that cinemas now exist in Saudi Arabia for locals to see it, too.
“The Perfect Candidate” feels even more by-the-book, carefully ensuring its main character, a woman doctor who runs for municipal council, experiences the trajectory deemed necessary to show the Kingdom as a place where female solidarity and a gradual easing of restrictive rules are leading to more fulfilling lives. Activists will argue the pace of transformation is too slow, government defenders will counter that real parity is a pipe dream and cultural practices take time to change. Al-Mansour leans toward the latter, presenting a challenging but sunny road ahead; it’s a pity her methods are so blatantly premeditated that you can practically see the most basic of script development notes in every scene.
Dr Maryam (Mila Alzahrani) is first seen driving her car alone – something women were only able to do as of 2018 – to the hospital where she works in a small town in Riyadh province, negotiating thick mud from the unpaved access road as she enters the doors.
Al-Mansour certainly appears more committed to this project than she did her more Western-centric projects “Mary Shelley” and “Nappily Ever After”, yet its personality lies entirely in the characters rather than the story or any filmmaking style. Visuals by DP Patrick Orth (“Toni Erdman”) are blandly undistinguished, but vibrant social media star Dhay is an especially welcome presence, and Alzahrani grows into her role once the character herself develops some gumption. Singing star Khadeeja Mua’th (on YouTube she’s spelled Khadija Moaz) also makes a real impact, playing a variation of herself and generating sparks of joyful warmth whenever on screen. (RTRS)
By Nick Vivarelli