NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to director Haifa al-Mansour about her film, The Perfect Candidate, about how a Saudi female doctor is the first female candidate in local elections.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
From the opening scene of “The Perfect Candidate” it is clear that this is a film that is about driving change. The first thing we see is our protagonist Maryam Alsafan, who drives down a dirt road to get to the clinic where she works as a doctor. But this dirt road symbolizes a lot more and ultimately drives Maryam to run for office to get the entrance to the clinic paved.
Director Haifaa Al-Mansour is now coming to us from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.
HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: Oh, thank you very much, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maryam is played with that kind of smoldering calm by Mila Al Zahrani. She has no intention of making a feminist statement with her campaign, but she is pushed to a breaking point by the daily outrage over being a young woman in Saudi Arabia with professional ambitions. What was the inspiration for this film?
AL-MANSOUR: I think there are a lot of changes among women in Saudi Arabia. But women often hesitate to make this change. And I’m talking about middle-class women who are mainly trained in Saudi Arabia and only go abroad for a short time for vacation. They are always controlled by their families and the social code. And Maryam is a good example of that. She is well educated. She is a doctor. She even has the freedom – she comes from a middle class, yes. And her father allows her to do things, but she still can’t break away from what to expect from a woman.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, she decides she’s had enough after trying to go to a medical conference, but her travel permit, which needs to be approved by her father, has expired. And in the end, she applies for a candidate because that’s the only way to see a male family member who might be able to help with that travel permit. But the real catalyst is the street in front of their hospital. Tell me about this street and what it represents.
AL-MANSOUR: Well, it sure is a change, but it is also a dream. It represents what we want. We think we are focused on achieving one thing, but there is what I call a by-product of the journey towards realizing our dreams, that it is really what makes us who we are.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, but it is also a symbol of corruption and neglect. I mean, if a country as rich as Saudi Arabia can’t pave the way to a hospital, it says something. We see patients who are kind of sick, old, sick and get stuck in a huge mud pit for help.
AL-MANSOUR: Saudi Arabia is a developing country. There are even sometimes clinics in the US and small towns that are worse off. We can’t just say it’s corruption. And not only Saudi Arabia has a lot of problems when it comes to sexism, when it comes to a lot of political attitudes. But people have to change at heart to change that. Women are now allowed to travel and go abroad and study, but women are still subject to the Social Security Code. They don’t want to go abroad because they may not get married and be stigmatized as being overly liberal. And these are things that really need to change and will not change unless we change people’s values.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. There is this very touching scene where Maryam is sitting on the balcony with her sister and saying she just wants to work in a good place. If she shows them what she’s made of, she will be respected. And her sister says I’m not sure this will work out. And then Maryam replies, but we have to try. And as you mentioned, things are changing for women in Saudi Arabia – slowly, but they are. And this film seems to carry that message.
AL-MANSOUR: Yes, I think change is a big word. And a lot of people think of change as if it were going to happen overnight. And the reality is that the change has to go deeper and that it has to take its time and its course. There are a lot of music concerts going back to Saudi Arabia and a lot of people don’t want them because they – so long in Saudi Arabia we have been informed that music is banned and your way to go there is hell. A lot of people, on the other hand, when a concert comes to a small town, people will lobby and try to displace the performers. So it takes time for people to accept. And I think it will happen. And I can see in my little town that people are much more relaxed now. You are not as militant as before.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 2012 you made the first feature film to be shot entirely in the Kingdom. I mean, you’ve made a lot of films outside of the country too. And you speak of this change, this acceptance of music and culture. What has changed in the film industry since then? I mean, what makes you keep making films in Saudi Arabia?
AL-MANSOUR: I think it’s a place I’m close to. And I tell stories about people I know, like my mother and my family. And I always try to be very close to my characters. And when I made the first film, the country was separated and I wasn’t allowed to film on the street. And there was no funding, like no public funding for film. And now there are many film festivals across the kingdom and there are funds for art. As an artist, I have always felt like a refugee in Saudi Arabia. But now I feel respected and can fight for my place in public.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just want to dig into that a little because you said you always felt like a refugee. And I wonder how you are seen as a woman in your country in the context of the film?
AL-MANSOUR: I’ve been making films for so long. There’s a kind of respect we’ve developed. I think her – I am a person who is liberal. I’m very progressive, but I respect where everyone is from. And all I want is respect for myself. And I think it allowed me to work in Saudi Arabia, even if it was very conservative. And a woman, I don’t cover my hair. I don’t think so – in many of the restrictive religious ideologies that surround women. And I think that’s a lot – for a lot of conservatives, it’s a position they can’t just take. But I think because I respected them, they felt compelled to show some respect.
And that’s what I mean. It’s important to drive change this way – to lead, but not to offend. And for me, making a movie like The Perfect Candidate is really important and people in Saudi Arabia watch it in the hope that women will be inspired to change their situation within their families, at work, and actually taking steps is happy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is Haifaa Al-Mansour. Her film “The Perfect Candidate” opens on May 14th in New York and Los Angeles. Many Thanks.
AL-MANSOUR: Thank you, Lulu.
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