This month, Saudi Arabia nominated the movie The Perfect Candidate as best foreign language film for the Oscars. This is not the first nomination for the director and script-writer Haifaa Al Mansour, whose movie Wajda was nominated in 2012. In January 2019, Al Mansour received a Crystal Award at the World Economic Forum for her leadership in cultural transformation in the Arab World. So who is Haifaa Al Mansour?
She was born in 1974, the eighth of twelve siblings. Originally from Al-Zulfi a village near Riyadh, she grew up in Al-Hasa in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Her father, a poet, introduced Haifaa to films through videos, because there were no movie theatres in Saudi Arabia at the time. After completing her high school in Saudi Arabia, with her father’s encouragement she studied comparative literature at The American University in Cairo and gained her Masters degree in Directing and Film Studies from the University off Sydney, Australia.
Al-Mansour began her film making career in 1997, with three short movies: Who (1997), The Bitter Journey (2000) and The Only Way Out (2001) . The last, The Only Way Out, won prizes in the United Arab Emirates and in the Netherlands. Her documentary Women Without Shadows, which deals with the hidden lives of women in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf received the Golden Dagger for Best Documentary at the Muscat Film Festival.
Haifaa’s international breakthrough came with the movie Wadjda, in 2012, which she wrote and directed. Like The Perfect Candidate, it had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Wajda was the first full-length feature to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the only feature-length film made in Saudi Arabia by a female director. Wadjda tells the story of a 10-year-old girl growing up in the suburbs of Riyadh, who dreams of owning and riding a green bicycle. As she has stated in many interviews, Al-Mansour never intended for her work to focus on women’s issues, but she found them too important not to address. She also feels that Saudi Arabia needs to take a more critical view of its culture. This gained her praise among the Saudi public, reflected in social media for encouraging discussion on topics usually considered taboo.
The Perfect Candidate stars Saudi actress Mila Alzahrani plays Maryam, a doctor whose decision to run for local office causes consternation in her Saudi community. Al Mansour has said that seeing a Saudi actress in her flowing dress on the red carpet at Venice was very touching.
Al Mansour, who has lived with her husband and children in Los Angeles for the past five years, does not want to take pot shots at Saudi society. In her view, the challenge is to push the boundaries a bit further every day in a society that is conservative, traditional and religious. In her view, pushing the envelope day-by-day will make it possible for people to have debates and create a bigger space for artists. “I felt this [film] was pushing the boundaries. It was about a woman running for an office.”
The Perfect Candidate is the first film supported by the new Saudi Film Council, which was formed in 2018. Al-Mansour is one of three women appointed to the 13-member board of the General Authority for Culture to oversee cultural and artistic development in Saudi Arabia. “I was really passionate about empowering young Saudi filmmakers and giving them a chance to grow,” she explains. “And that is happening; they’re getting funds for Saudi films.” However, despite her high profile, Al Mansour’s script for The Perfect Candidate still had to go through the usual checks and balances.