When Haifaa al-Mansour made her last film in Saudi Arabia, in 2012, she received death threats – and the film received awards around the globe.
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The much-anticipated picture follows a young female doctor, Maryam, who decides to run for local office – something that only became legally permissible in Saudi Arabia in 2015 – and the difficulties she faces in a deeply conservative society.
The very first shot of The Perfect Candidate is a woman driving. That seems like a statement of intent. The film captures a society in transformation. Saudi Arabia is moving to become more progressive; they are introducing more liberal ideas. This film is caught in the midst of all that. Women can drive, but the percentage of women who drive in Saudi Arabia is not very high. It is the younger generation, who haven’t gone through all the history, who are able to embrace change faster. It’s still very conservative, but they have more opportunities than my generation.
Maryam’s father is a touring musician and music plays a very central role in the film. Why? Introducing progressive ideas in a society such as Saudi Arabia won’t be easy. Last month there were two men who were performing on stage; someone tried to stab and kill them. But it is very important: if we want to create a country that hopefully moves forward, we cannot create it without human beings who have empathy and sympathy. You cannot do it without art.
‘YOU CANNOT MOVE SAUDI ARABIA FORWARD WITHOUT ART’
Cinemas first opened in Saudi Arabia two years ago. Has that been a success? I think it’s been a success, especially [for] American films. But we don’t know how they will react to a local film, as we don’t understand the box office in the Middle East very well.
When you made your last Saudi film, you had to direct by walkie-talkie from the back of a van, for safety reasons. Was that the case this time? No. This time was different – we could work in the streets. Though sometimes, in very conservative neighbourhoods, we didn’t want to attract attention. There were some people who tried to stop us; they wanted to kick us out. We called the police and the police told them, “You cannot stop them. They’re here and you have to respect that.” It’s something that never happened before.
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