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One-On-One With ‘The Perfect Candidate’ Director Haifaa Al Mansour

The empowering film is about a woman who grows to believe in herself and goes out to take a chance, something Al Mansour wants other Saudi women to do…

Resting on her laurels has never been an option for Haifaa Al Mansour, who is acknowledged as the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. After award-winning Wadjda saw her behind the lens of the first movie shot entirely in the Kingdom and the country's first Oscar entry, the director and writer came back to break ground once again with The Perfect Candidate.

The latest film by Al Mansour, who did her master’s degree in Directing and Film Studies at the University of Sydney, is the first to be supported by the young Saudi Film Council. Now available on OSN Store, The Perfect Candidate, which is written and produced by Al Mansour and Brad Niemann, with the help of Berlin’s Razor Film Produktion, was also one of just two films directed by women out of 21 in the running for last year’s Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival’s top prize. The multi-layered family drama, which like Al Mansour’s other work focuses on the challenges strong, spritied women who want to make a difference through hard work face in male-dominated societies, was also selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

In this interview, we ask Al Mansour about what it was like to come back to film The Perfect Candidate in a changed Saudi Arabia after a long spell in LA working on projects like Mary Shelley and Nappily Ever After. We also talk to one of the most significant cinematic figures in the Kingdom about why she felt it was important to pepper the touching film with cultural references, viewers’ emotions and what she loves most about Maryam’s character. Additionally, we touch on why Al Mansour felt newcomer Mila Alzahrani was the best choice to play the young doctor who surprises everyone by standing as a candidate for her local municipality, propelled by her desire to make her hometown a better place. Plus, you can find out about the challenges Al Mansour has faced, her favourite films, the women who have inspired her and much more.

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While "The Perfect Candidate" focuses on the pressing issue of women's rights like your other work, you also celebrate certain aspects of Saudi culture in the movie, including music, sense of humour and food. Did you want people to see the more private side of life in Saudi Arabia?

Absolutely, the private side of Saudi Arabia is something audiences never really get to see. Even within the country, we are a very private people so it is nice to open things up a little for everyone. For this film in particular I wanted to tell a story about a culturally conservative, traditional woman who decides to embrace the changes that are taking place and go out there and seize the moment in public. The reality of her journey, of stepping out of this very private world and into the public sphere, is that it will be difficult, and lots of people will be critical of her choices, but it will ultimately open up a whole new world for her. I want to stress to the women of Saudi Arabia how important it is to go out there and take a chance, even if you don’t have any experience in doing so. 

I also wanted to take a moment to celebrate the strong artistic and cultural legacy of Saudi Arabia and tell a story that stresses how important it is that we build upon those traditions as the foundation for our societies development. So much of our music, theatre, stories, and all forms of artistic expression were almost erased from our culture entirely, so I felt like we needed a story that reminded people of the strong artistic traditions we have, and how they can help us as we move forward into an exciting future. 

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It’s a film about sisterhood too, isn’t it?

Absolutely, sisterhood is a very important theme of the story. The girls depend so much on each other, and their destinies are so crucially intertwined, that they have to learn to understand and support each other if they all want to succeed. The actions of one affects the lives of all of them, whether they like it or not, so being open to the consequences of one of them stepping out of line is a tough decision to make.

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Choose a couple of keywords to describe your film.

The Perfect Candidate is about a strong, sassy and determined woman who wants to contribute to making her hometown a better place. 

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What emotions do you think viewers feel when watching the film?

I want everyone to understand how hard it is to step outside and take a chance when everything you’ve been taught or seen has told you not to. Even when the consequences don’t seem severe, it is the culmination of all the little pressures that build and build on women until they step back into line. I hope people leave the theatre feeling defiant, brave and ready to step beyond the things that limit them in their own worlds. 

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What do you love most about Maryam’s character?

I share a lot of Mariam’s determination and a desire to just do my job the best I can.  I guess I am kind of crazy in the same way, in that I just go after the things I believe are right and push on the best I can. But I also feel very close to the father’s character in the film, as I feel strongly that now is the time to honour the sacrifices and commitment that artists and musicians made to keep our artistic culture alive over the past few decades. They faced a lot of criticism and very limited opportunities for so long, so I really felt proud to honour all of the musicians in the film and give them a platform for their music to be heard. It was really amazing to shoot the concert scenes, and to see all of the extras dancing and enjoying the music. It was very special for me.

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Mila Alzahrani has had great reviews. Why did she initially stand out for you?

Mila is a wonderful actress, and I had seen some of her previous work so I was very excited to talk with her about the role. She has a lot of energy and enthusiasm that is so important for the role, and she is thoughtful and introspective enough to be believable as a doctor. She was a great fit for the film, and I predict more great things from her in the future. 

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Your sister and niece inspired Maryam and Wadjda’s characters respectively. Which other females have motivated you?

My mother is a huge influence on me and is a big part of the film. Even though Maryam’s mother is not physically present, her influence is heavy on everything they do. My mother loves to sing and has a larger-than-life personality that always embarrassed me as a child. In a place where women are supposed to be quiet and shy, she was always over the top and full of life. Now that I am older, I appreciate so much how much she taught me about defiance, just in being herself, and not letting anyone control her or mold her into something she wasn’t. 

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As Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, you’re an inspiration to many young aspiring female directors and writers in the Kingdom. What advice do you have for them?

My advice to everyone, male or female is: Don’t focus on the things holding you back. It is so easy to look at all of the people, customs, ideas or prejudices working against you. Believe me, I’ve been through it all. You have to tune that out and just focus on the things you need to do to reach your goal. As a woman there will always be people questioning your authority, doubting your ability, and hesitant to believe in your vision or ideas. All you can do is go out there and work hard and prove them wrong.

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Tell us about some of the roadblocks you have faced.

I’ve faced quite a few roadblocks in my career, especially in the beginning, but for me it has always been important to focus on my goals and not the obstacles in front of me. Through my films I always focus on female protagonists who want to work hard and do their job to the best of their abilities. For this film I wanted to create a character that is very much representative of the mainstream mentality of Saudi women. She covers her face and follows the cultural norms of the society but ends up pushing boundaries because she wants to do her job well. The restrictions that keep her from performing her work in the ways that would best benefit the society frustrate her and force her to think outside the box. She is not a rebel for the sake of rebellion; she is someone that knows that her work can make the country a better place and simply wants to remove the barriers that keep her from accomplishing her mission. I believe strongly that this is the way that true change comes to a society, through hard-working people who simply want to be able to reach their highest potential.

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Would you have done anything differently?

Again, I really try to keep my focus on the tasks ahead of me, rather than looking back and trying to figure out things I could have done better. I believe strongly that the roadblocks and obstacles usually make a film come out better. When you are forced to deal with an issue you have no choice but to work through it with the tools you have at hand. I never had the luxury of time to decide which direction to take, so it was always about committing to a way forward and making it work to the best of my ability. 

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You returned to Saudi Arabia to shoot "The Perfect Candidate" nearly 10 years after "Wadjda," the first feature length film to be shot entirely in the Kingdom. Tell us about how the changes that have taken place have had a positive effect on filming?

Well a lot has changed since I made my first Saudi film! It was incredibly difficult to make a film in 2011, and people were still very hesitant to embrace any public form of artistic expression at that time. Film was especially seen as taboo, and the idea of opening theatres had become a red line that most of us thought would never be crossed. Of course now everything is different, and we have cinemas going up all across the Kingdom. But the larger issue of a lack of infrastructure in the film industry remains. We have a lot of work to do in building up the tools and resources necessary to make quality films. We don’t have many people with experience in the field yet, so putting together a crew and getting the right equipment is very difficult. Getting the proper training and education necessary to help craft and shape our stories is another key area that we need to develop. It is still a very challenging place to work, and a very closed, insular society, so it was a tough but worthwhile journey. 

And it was really great to be out of the van! Being allowed to fully mix with my crew and be fully immersed in the production was amazing. It was also very exciting to have so many enthusiastic young Saudis working on the set. They are the future of the industry, and to see them giving their all to contribute and be a part of making the film was very special for me. We still have a long way to go in building our local crews and expertise, but the enthusiasm is there to build upon. It is an exciting time to be a filmmaker from Saudi Arabia!

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Which part of the country would you love to feature in some future work?

I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Asir because it is such a beautiful and unique part of the country. I travelled there to scout for a project years ago and really fell in love with the place. I hope to get the opportunity to make a film there someday!

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What are your thoughts on the inaugural edition of the state-backed Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, which had to be postponed due to COVID-19?

It was incredibly disappointing to see the Red Sea Film Festival postponed because of the COVID-19 situation, but of course it was the right and only decision that could have been made. Festivals all over the world have been postponed so it is a very sad time for the industry. It was especially sad for us because we had so much planned with the cast and crew and it would have been a very rewarding finale for the film. But I know that the festival will be back and bigger and better once all of this is over, and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together!

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Speaking of festivals, describe what it’s like to attend world-renowned events like the Venice Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival.

Both Cannes and Venice are truly magical experiences and such a joyous celebration of the art of filmmaking. It is so thrilling to be around so many of the most accomplished filmmakers in the world who share the same passion for the art form. Every film festival around the world is special, from Sydney to Telluride to London, because it gives us the chance to catch up with other filmmakers from around the world and discuss and debate the future of the craft. I sincerely hope that festivals start to open up again soon. 

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Can you list some of your all-time favourite films?

I love the Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief as they call it in America) and it was a huge influence on me in making Wadjda. The Dardene brother’s film Rosetta was also a very moving film about a girl at war with the world. Jane Campion’s The Piano is another one of my favourite films. I was lucky to get to spend some time studying it in graduate school and think about it quite often when I craft my own work. It is a masterful work, and there is so much you can get out of it on multiple viewings. And too many recent films to name! This is such an exciting time for film, and we are really spoiled by how much amazing work comes out every year, that I feel overwhelmed just trying to name a few. 

The Perfect Candidate is available to buy or rent on OSN Store.

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