Women in Saudi Arabia couldn’t drive, vote, or work with men when Haifaa Al Mansour became the country’s first female feature-length-film director upon the release of Wadjda (2012), the story of a 10-year-old girl determined to have her own bicycle. The film also marked Saudi Arabia’s first submission to the Oscars, picked up three awards at Venice, and earned Al Mansour a BAFTA nomination. Following the success of Wadjda, Al Mansour was plucked up by Hollywood and offered the opportunity to direct a biopic of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley starring Elle Fanning. While Al Mansour was surprised to be handed the Gothic period piece, she quickly struck on the similarities between the confines 19th-century society placed on the young and pioneering Shelley and those of present-day, ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
The 8th of 12 children, Al Mansour, 45, grew up between Riyadh and Al-Hasa, in eastern Saudi Arabia, with parents who did not speak English. The barriers filmmakers in her home country faced were notable—for more than 35 years, religious hard-liners had succeeded in keeping public cinemas shuttered, a regulation lifted just two years ago—and compounded by Al Mansour’s gender. This is, after all, a place where women are still typically segregated from men at restaurants and at work, and where even admission to the hospital requires permission from a male guardian.
Due to these strict rules and the government’s wide-ranging censure, daily life in the country is not well known beyond its borders; it has always been Al Mansour’s ambition to show her version of Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world. “I cast non-professional actors, just to bring a slice of life,” she explained of both Wadjda and her new film, The Perfect Candidate, available for streaming in the U.K. on the Web site Modern Films. “I hope people will understand what it means to be in Saudi Arabia.”
Al Mansour saw similarities between the confines placed on a young Mary Shelley and those of ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
Al Mansour’s latest film, the script of which she wrote with her husband, takes the director back to familiar territory. The Perfect Candidate follows an overworked, female Saudi Arabian doctor who decides to run in a municipal election. “It was really nice to be back home,” says Al Mansour, who filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia in 2019. “I know the language. I know the people.” Al Mansour’s story is both empowering and inflected with humor, made with the aim of reminding audiences—as she announced at an International Women’s Day screening of the film in London—that “it’s all right to laugh, even when a woman is wearing a veil.”
Al Mansour shies away from saying anything overtly political but notes that the experience of making The Perfect Candidate was decidedly different from that of her first film. Then, while shooting exteriors in Riyadh, Al Mansour hid in her van and could communicate with the cast and crew only through a walkie-talkie, one of the many consequences of Saudi Arabia’s rules barring women from interacting publicly with men outside of their families. This time around, she had far more freedom.
“At a certain point there was a conservative guy who came and tried to stop our filming. We called the police on him. The police came and checked our permit, which was valid. So they told him, ‘You cannot really stop them.’” It was a small victory, but one that as recently as three years ago would have been inconceivable. “I think change comes from so many places and so many sources,” says Al Mansour of what she’s witnessing in her home country. “Bringing [women] back to public life in Saudi Arabia … will neutralize the gender politics and also create a civilization that is able to learn and adapt.”
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for AIR MAIL