Why ‘The Perfect Candidate’ Director Haifaa Al-Mansour Returned to Saudi Arabia After ‘Cinema Was Legal’

“I felt empowered to go back and make a film that is legal. But it was still really tough,” Saudi filmmaker says

Haifaa Al-Mansour The Perfect Candidate
Ted Soqui

When Haifaa Al-Mansour made her first feature film “Wadjda” in 2012, Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Oscar submission, she famously had to direct the film from the back of a van while segregated from her male cast and crew as she worked. For her latest film “The Perfect Candidate,” she wanted to see just how much times have changed in her country since then.

While many people filmed TV, the public exhibition of movies early in the decade was still forbidden, and many locals would be apprehensive to allow filmmakers to use actors or use locations for a film for fear of reprisal from radicals or the government. Since “Wadjda,” Al-Mansour has made a handful of English-language films and shows, and she’s observed how the fear toward cinema in her country has lessened.

“Cinema was legal, and I wanted to know what had changed,” Al-Mansour told TheWrap’s Steve Pond following a screening of the film Wednesday at the Landmark Theatres in Los Angeles. “To me, I felt empowered to go back and make a film that is legal. But it was still really tough.”

“The Perfect Candidate” is a light-hearted comedy about a young doctor named Maryam who inadvertently runs for her local municipal council in an attempt to get a road paved to her clinic. She doesn’t have much of a chance in the election, but her determination comes from demanding respect as a candidate, even though she’s a woman.

Al-Mansour explains that though some of the laws have changed and women are slowly seeing more opportunities, there’s still a lot of social pressure in Saudi Arabia for women to remain at home and remain hidden. What’s more, art itself is often suppressed, with some musicians and artists at risk just for performing. Dr. Maryam’s story is one more positive representation designed to change that stigma.

“It’s very important to encourage progressive ideas, whether they come from Saudi Arabia or the Middle East where it is very conservative and people don’t appreciate arts or women’s rights, or other things like that,” Al-Mansour said. “So to me it’s very important to seize a moment like this and hope that art will find its at the root to society. Because it is what makes civilization. Really if we want democracy in that part of the region, we can’t do it without art. It is the basis for everything.”

However, Al-Mansour’s eyes aren’t set just squarely on changing the minds of Saudi Arabian audiences. “The Perfect Candidate” is Saudi Arabia’s official Oscar submission to the international feature race in 2020, but the film is still seeking distribution abroad and here in America. Al-Mansour recruited a cast of primarily non-professional actors in a relatable setting, and “The Perfect Candidate” is a way to share her culture with the rest of the world.

“It’s to open a place where I come from that has a lot of tradition, has a lot of practices that people, it’s almost like documentary making a film like that,” she said. “It’s for people to know who we are as people, not like just the news or everything. It’s for people you don’t get to see because they’re not very important. They’re not the prime minister, they’re not rich, they’re just people.”

“The Perfect Candidate” opens with a scene in which a patient says to Dr. Maryam, “You’ll never succeed with a woman in charge.” Al-Mansour says this is actually a popular saying among certain men in Saudi Arabia. But slowly and with the help of art like hers, things are changing for the better.

“I give a lot of praise to Saudi women for proving themselves through hard work and dedication and trying to prove themselves even quietly. I admire that,” Al-Mansour said. “We have to prove we can be in charge and we can take that responsibility. But I hope that things are changing. There are progressive ideologies that are in the Middle East, and we hope those progressive ideologies will make something real and take the new step for the new generation that they don’t have to suffer through this and don’t have to go through the same thing we went through.”