#WaraElCeema: Our Exclusive Interview With Haifaa Al Mansour, the First Saudi Woman to Direct a Feature Film

We had an exclusive interview with one of the most influential figures in the film industry across the Arab World, Haifaa Al Mansour, the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film. We discussed how she got into filmmaking, her movie “The Perfect Candidate”, her advice to her younger self, and more.

How did you get into filmmaking?

My journey as a filmmaker began after college. I was working for an oil company in Saudi and I felt invisible. I would try to speak up in meetings and my male colleagues would completely ignore me. I felt frustrated and alone, so I started making short films as an outlet, as a way for my voice to be heard. It was a hobby, more than anything else, but it gave me such satisfaction in the art of creation.

And I submitted it to all the regional film festivals, and I was shocked that one actually invited me. They were the ones that said, “did you know you are the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia?” That was really something to hear, and such a motivator for me to keep going in the field.

What are the challenges that you faced as the first female director in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

Well a lot has changed since I made my first Saudi film! It was incredibly difficult to make a film in 2011, and people were still very hesitant to embrace any public form of artistic expression at that time. Film was especially seen as taboo, and the idea of opening theaters had become a red line that most of us thought would never be crossed. Of course, now everything is different, and we have cinemas going up all across the Kingdom. But the larger issue of a lack of infrastructure in the film industry remains. We have a lot of work to do in building up the tools and resources necessary to make quality films. We don’t have many people with experience in the field yet so putting together a crew and getting the right equipment is very difficult. Getting the proper training and education necessary to help craft and shape our stories is another key area that we
need to develop. It is still a very challenging place to work, and a very closed, insular society, so it was a tough but worthwhile journey.

And it was really great to be out of the van! Being allowed to fully mix with my crew and be fully immersed in the production was amazing. It was also very exciting to have so many enthusiastic young Saudis working on the set. They are the future of the industry, and to see them giving their all to contribute and be a part of making the film was very special for me. We still have a long way to go in building our local crews and expertise, but the enthusiasm is there to build upon. It is an exciting time to be a filmmaker from Saudi Arabia!

From idea to execution, how did “The Perfect Candidate” come to life?

There are incredible changes taking place right now at home in Saudi Arabia, and I felt like I really wanted to contribute to the positive changes taking place there. We went through such a long period of time where nothing changed, where it seemed like even the slightest openings or relaxations of the cultural restraints, we lived under seemed impossible, especially when it came to the lives of women. But now the pace of change
is so fast that it is hard to keep up with, and the challenge now is to encourage people to go out and make the most of the opportunities they have. Especially for women, it will take a huge shift in thinking to fully understand and embrace the freedoms they now have the chance to explore.

So, I really wanted to tell a story about a culturally conservative, traditional woman who decides to embrace these changes and go out there and seize the moment. The reality of her journey is that it will be difficult, and lots of people will be critical of her choices, but it will ultimately open up a whole new world for her. I want to stress to the women of Saudi Arabia how important it is to go out there and take a chance, even if you don’t
have any experience in doing so. It is still hard for Saudi women to put themselves out there, and they are nervous about doing things they haven’t done before like driving, traveling, or uncovering their faces.

I also wanted to take a moment to celebrate the strong artistic and cultural legacy of Saudi Arabia and tell a story that stresses how important it is that we build upon those traditions as the foundation for our society’s development. So much our music, theater, stories, and all forms of artistic expression were almost erased from our culture entirely, so I felt like we needed a story that reminded people of the strong artistic traditions we have, and how they can help us as we move forward into an exciting future.

If you’d change one thing about it, what would it be?

Selfishly I would love to have even more music! I was so honored and excited to work with the band we had in the film in staging concerts and seeing people react to the live music experience. It was really special to me.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to your younger self?

Just keep going! There are so many obstacles, and it is so easy to get thrown off course, my advice is to just work hard and find solutions. I always try to avoid focusing on the problems or the things in my way, and just go step by step to work through everything.

What’s the achievement you’re proud of the most?

I’m very proud that The Perfect Candidate which is now available to buy or rent on OSN Store was selected into the main competition at Venice Film Festival. It is so validating to have the film placed in the same category as the most prestigious films from across the world. It is definitely one of my favorite festivals in the world!

How do you choose your topics?

All of the films I’ve done focus on the story of a strong female protagonist that refuses to be a victim. Those are the stories I find most exciting and most effective in inspiring positive change.

WE SAID THIS: Have you watched The Perfect Candidate yet?