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Haifaa al-Mansour: At home in the driver’s seat with ‘A Perfect Candidate’

Nora Al Awadh as Sara in “The Perfect Candidate”
Nora Al Awadh as Sara in “The Perfect Candidate,” the second feature shot in Saudi Arabia by that country’s first female feature director, Haifaa al-Mansour.
(The Match Factory)

The 2019 Envelope Live Screening Series continued at the Montalbán in Hollywood with a Dec. 3 presentation of Haifaa al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate.” Following the screening, The Times’ Lorraine Ali interviewed Saudi Arabia’s first female feature director on the Montalbán stage.

“It is very important to encourage women now,” said al-Mansour. She said that though progress is being made for women in Saudi Arabia, change is slow and meets significant resistance. For instance, she noted, although women are now allowed to drive, conservative relatives have been known to burn their cars. “We need to capitalize on anything that gives a little liberty, or freedom to move forward.”

‘The Perfect Candidate’ director Haifaa al-Mansour
“The Perfect Candidate” director Haifaa al-Mansour at an Envelope Live Q&A at the Montalbán in Hollywood.

Her new feature, her first in the kingdom since her celebrated debut, “Wadjda” (2012), follows a female doctor (Nora Al Awadh as Sara) who becomes an accidental candidate for municipal council. The director and co-writer told Ali that capturing Saudi culture — especially aspects that had long been suppressed, such as most types of music — was another key motivator.

“My mother comes from a very good family, very prominent and all that. But she loved music. She wanted to sing and become a singer,” said al-Mansour.

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“I grew up with this music. It is sad that musicians or people who had a passion or dream to do something because they were chased — police would be coming after them — it is sad to see that diminish from society. ... I was so excited to see music coming back, back home.”

“The Perfect Candidate” director Haifaa al-Mansour reveals what inspired her to make the film, including her mother’s love for music.

She said that when making movies in her home country, she strives to work with locals, “people who don’t have access to the world.”

“Like, even the band, it’s amazing. It’s a band of misfits. The short guy, the fat guy — like me — the guys, they are not the coolest, they are not Blink-182, let’s say. I introduced them to my producer, he was like, ‘Hmmmm.…’ And then they pulled it off; they gave us really amazing music.”

It wasn’t their unlikeliness that touched her, though; it was their dedication in real life.

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“Music has been really illegal for so [long], but those people even made music when it was illegal. They sang in small gatherings and weddings and stuck with it even when it was really hard. They never broke big or became pop stars or anything, but they just had this deep love of music that made them stay with it.”

“The Perfect Candidate” director Haifaa al-Mansour talks about Saudi Arabia’s past with banning music and why she felt it was necessary to include in the film.

Between “Wadjda” and “Perfect Candidate,” al-Mansour helmed a couple of Western films, “Mary Shelley” and “Nappily Ever After.” So it shouldn’t surprise that even in her return to Saudi Arabia, she intended to make a feature for a broad audience.

“I don’t believe in making film in a vacuum. I believe in a film that reaches to people and hope people understand the humor,” she said.

“A lot of the film is for people back home … there are a lot of inside jokes for back home. But you want to connect with other people ....

“Nobody [outside the country] knows who Saudis are, inside their homes. It is nice to give them that space where they are just humans, who they are.”

“The Perfect Candidate” director Haifaa al-Mansour discusses not making movies in a bubble in order to have universal appeal.

She also acknowledged that since film hasn’t always been legal in the kingdom, some locals were resistant to their efforts.

“It is hard to wash people from ideas that they’ve been brought up with — that is what it means to be noble, that is what it means to be honest … it will take a lot of effort. It’s time to build bridges, it is not like saying, ‘You’re conservative; I don’t like you’ … it is more like, ‘I respect you, you respect me. We have to coexist … this film is not to diminish your value as much as to bring a voice that will represent me as a woman.’ ”

“The Perfect Candidate” director Haifaa al-Mansour talks about making a film in Saudi Arabia where cinema hasn’t been accepted for generations.

“It is never to be on the wrong side of history if you are with progressive ideas, when it comes to art and women and humanity. And that is what we should always support,” said the filmmaking pioneer. “That is what creates a human being that is able to carry civilization.”

Saudi Arabia’s first female feature director, Haifaa al-Mansour, is back with her second movie shot in the kingdom, “The Perfect Candidate.”
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