Interview: Haifaa Al-Mansour And Her Cinema Of Change

Cinema, Haifaa Al Mansour, Celebrity, Filmmaker, The Perfect Candidate, Dubai
“It’s difficult for people to accept, for example, a woman in the street, so I had to be in a van and direct”

This was Haifaa al-Mansour in 2012 in Dubai, after the Gulf premiere of her debut feature, answering our question about the biggest challenge she faced in directing Wadjda on the streets of Riyadh.

The Perfect Candidate Press Conference with Haifaa al-Mansour

La Biennale di Venezia

Fast forward seven years and now not only can women drive in Saudi — and the protagonist in al-Mansour’s latest The Perfect Candidate does so confidently throughout — but the filmmaker admits, “I don’t have to be in the van anymore!” In fact, she adds “once the police came and stopped someone who wanted to obstruct us, he didn’t like us to film and we had permission.” Not to mention that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia started allowing cinemas for the first time since 1983, participated with their own Saudi Film Council pavilion in Cannes in 2018, where al-Mansour was on a panel about Arab women filmmakers, and there are plans for an inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah in the spring of 2020.

La Biennale di Venezia

It would be simplistic to call Haifaa al-Mansour a cinema ambassador. And yet that word befits the petite, well spoken filmmaker to a “t”. Al-Mansour is a woman just as easily at home shooting on the streets on Riyadh as she is hobnobbing with Hollywood stars. She is a staple at the Venice Film Festival, where this year she premiered The Perfect Candidate as one of only two women filmmakers participating in the main Competition.

When we asked al-Mansour about being an ambassador for Saudi culture, back in 2012 in Dubai she easily shrugged the label off. “I didn’t want to be an ambassador,” she pointed out, then adding about Wadjda, “I wanted to make a real authentic story and make it local as much as possible but with global themes, so it could travel as much as possible, to outside audiences.”

La Biennale di Venezia

Yet in the last seven years, since bursting onto the festival circuit with Wadjda, al-Mansour has made Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, a big budget movie which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, as well as Nappily Ever After, a Netflix production about a woman looking inward instead of relying on her outward beauty to find success. Al-Mansour also directed some TV, made a short film in between and now her latest The Perfect Candidate screened in Venice, before moving onto to Toronto and the BFI London Film Festival. In 2018 Al-Mansour was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Kingdom’s General Authority for Culture, a nomination about which she admits she feels “incredibly honored.”

La Biennale di Venezia

The Perfect Candidate tells the story of a Saudi doctor, played by Mila al Zahrani who, in order to get things done around the clinic where she works, runs for political office in her municipal council. But the film is as much about a woman challenging patriarchal society in Saudi, as it is about a specific concept of freedom which al-Mansour describes. “There is a lot of freedom, but I don’t know how much women are using those freedoms…” she says about the changes in Saudi in the last years, and she cautions “I think it’s very important for women to cultivate on those freedoms, really make the most out of them — by making a film like this we hope to empower.”

Razor Film Al Mansour Establishment for Audiovisual Media

Razor Film Al Mansour Establishment for Audiovisual Media

Razor Film Al Mansour Establishment for Audiovisual Media

“We” is al-Mansour, her husband Brad Niemann who co-wrote with her The Perfect Candidate, as well as her long-term producers at Razor Films who were also co-producers on Wadjda. And this time around, the Al-Mansour Est. for Audiovisual Media, a Saudi company, is listed too, once again proving that al-Mansour has one foot confidently planted in the Western world and the other deeply rooted in the Gulf.

As the Kingdom moves forward with its reforms, al-Mansour cautions about forgetting one’s roots by pointing out “I want Saudis to see the value of our almost-lost artistic traditions, and understand how crucial they are as a foundation for our future.” In The Perfect Candidate, the protagonist’s father, played by Khalid Abdulraheem, goes on a long journey to play classical music around the Kingdom, and al-Mansour and Niemann use the opportunity to showcase through his voyage the beauty of Saudi culture and the arts.The couple have now set up permanent residence in Los Angeles, after traveling extensively while Niemann was a diplomat throughout the Arab world. When asked if she feels the atmosphere has changed since Trump’s America happened, al-Mansour answers “I don’t deal wth prejudice,” then adding “I’m very open to the world — and I feel if you put bridges out to the world, the world will accept you.”

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Mixing her own brand of self-confidence, delivered in a smart, amiable package she affirms, “my identity comes from who I am, not my religion or my background or my culture; I talk to people and I enjoy that and I think that’s how it should be.” 

So does al-Mansour herself believe cinema can change the world, the way some of her biggest fans do? “I do think so — a little bit and slowly.”


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Cinema, Haifaa Al Mansour, Celebrity, Filmmaker, The Perfect Candidate, Dubai