Haifaa Al Mansour on 'The Perfect Candidate' in the US, shifts in Saudi and adapting Kiera Cass' work for Netflix

The pioneering Saudi filmmaker's latest film, which premiered in Venice in 2019, is finally coming to a US screen near you and MIME got to interview her on the eve of the release.
Haifaa Al Mansour on 'The Perfect Candidate' in the US, shifts in Saudi and adapting Kiera Cass' work for Netflix

Saudi-born, US-based filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour isn't afraid to break ground with her work. In 2012, she first appeared on international cinematic radars when her feature debut Wadjda premiered at the Venice Film Festival. While it's now famously recognized that Al Mansour couldn't even be seen filming on the streets of Riyadh -- and had to direct from the back of a production van -- she created a catalyst for change with her work which reverberated through groundbreaking changes in policies in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 2018 women were granted the right to drive and cinemas reopened in Saudi, after being banned for 35 years.

Fast forward to the present day and her latest oeuvre The Perfect Candidate showcases a story of courage, once again featuring a female protagonist who, this time around, brings about dramatic shifts with her need for things to be better in the clinic where she practices medicine. Running for public office, driving herself around at the start of the film, Maryam (played by Mila Alzahrani) is a modern Saudi woman, representing all the strength, determination and courage that could describe all women, around the world, who broke barriers this year. In fact, although Al Mansour's film should have opened in theaters last year and was stopped by the worldwide pandemic, the story seems much more timely in our Kamala Harris as First Woman Vice-President's modern day America.

In between the two films shot in her native Saudi Arabia, Al Mansour has been living in Los Angeles with her husband Brad Niemann (who has co-written and co-produced her latest) and their two children. She directed two films in the States, Mary Shelley (2016) starring Elle Fanning, and Nappily Ever After (2017) a Netflix rom-com. And she is currently working on another Netflix project, the film adaptation of Kiera Cass' book The Selection, a YA favourite which fans of both the filmmaker and the writer have been anxiously anticipating.

Mila Alzahrani in The Perfect Candidate. Courtesy of Music Box Films

We caught up with Haifaa Al Mansour via email and the resulting interview is a must-read! As is usually the case with this intelligent, warm and wonderfully visionary filmmaker.

How different was it to shoot this film, as opposed to Wadjda?

Quite a bit 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 especially was 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. And there are emerging companies and funds to address the larger issue of a lack of infrastructure in the film industry. We have a lot of work to do in building up the tools and resources necessary to make quality films. But it is amazing to see a lot of young people interested in film and that will help in the long run so we can have more people with experience in the field and putting together a crew will be easier. Getting the proper training and education necessary to help craft and shape our stories is another key area that is being explored. It is always tough to make a film, but it was a worthwhile journey.  

And [this time] 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 for film in Saudi Arabia!

The film was meant to be released in the spring of 2020, and then the pandemic hit. Has the way you view the film changed since it was first screened in Venice in 2019?

I feel like we are entering a very hopeful period after a long, difficult time for the whole world. I hope this film encourages people to be defiantly optimistic in the aftermath of these tough times. It is very important to be hopeful and proactive, and I think that message is especially important now. 

It’s time to get to work!

And what has remained the same in the story for you?

The main story I wanted to tell, which very much remains the same, is that of a culturally conservative, traditional woman who decides to embrace the changes that are taking place and go out there and seize the moment in public. The reality of her journey, of stepping out of this very private world and into the public sphere, is what will be difficult, and lots of people will be critical of her choices, but that 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, travelilng or uncovering their faces.

With the recent #sofagate, we reconnect to the place women are traditionally given when it comes to politics. Or rather, the place (seat?) men would like them to have, off to the side. Yet here we are in 2021 with a first woman, of mixed race and from immigrant parents US Vice President. I’d say there is no more perfect moment to view The Perfect Candidate! What are your thoughts?

Yes, the film is definitely very timely. There are women all over the world rising up to accept the responsibility of governing and pushing for more representation in the decisions that effect their lives. We should celebrate and support women at every level of leadership. Especially in places like Saudi Arabia, where the situation for women has changed dramatically in recent years. All of the recent breakthroughs that have come for women in Saudi Arabia are huge, seismic shifts for the Region. That is why I chose to start the film with the main character driving a car. It is something that would have seemed impossible even a few years ago. But now it is up to women to accept these changes in their own lives and take the risks that come with trying something new. The pressure is no longer on progressive women, who have pushed for these changes, it is now on the middle-of-the-road people, who are reluctant to embrace change. I hope more women will start driving, and working in mixed environments with men, or travelling, or just doing the things that make them happy. That will lead them into positions of greater responsibility and more and more control over their lives and their communities. Now is the time!

Mila Alzahrani and Hamad Almuzainy. Courtesy of Music Box Films

Do you think how the film is viewed changes from the Middle East to the US? If yes, how and if not, why not?

There are big differences in the way the cultural aspects of the film are appreciated at home compared to the way audiences experience it abroad. For us, many of the songs in the film are traditional and bring back fond memories or elicit feelings of nostalgia for the past. Also, we haven’t been able to celebrate music publicly for a long time in Saudi Arabia, so I did my best to capture the excitement that people now feel about art returning to the public sphere. It is hard to explain what it feels like to see the country opening up -- it is very emotional. I loved filming the big concert scenes. I was so honoured and excited to work with the band we had in the film in staging concerts and seeing people react to the live music experience. The crowd just went crazy and their enthusiastic reactions were all genuine. It was really special for me.

You’re working on the Netflix adaptation of Kiera Cass’ The Selection. What can you say about it? How is it working on this story by a YA author?

It is very exciting to work on developing a property as popular as The Selection book series. The books are deeply loved and appreciated by fans around the globe -- and I’ve heard from a lot of them on social media! They all have very strong opinions about how the film should look and feel -- especially in the casting. I love the passion and excitement of the fan base and am really dedicated to honouring and celebrating the source material in our adaptation. There is a reason that the books have found such a dedicated following, and staying true to the spirit and heart of those stories is very important to all of us involved in the project. It is really such a fun story to develop –- full of romance, action, humour, heart -- it is going to be a very exciting film!   

LA vs. Riyadh, what changes and what stays the same?

So many issues are the same no matter where you film -- from Europe to LA to Riyadh -- it all comes down to finding the right crew, securing the budget, and staying on schedule. Obviously all of those things are easier in places with a deeper history in the industry like LA, but if you have the right people and put your trust in them I’ve found great results everywhere. In Saudi there are a lot of young people hungry to get into the industry and get experience, so it is very rewarding to see them rise to meet the challenge when given the opportunity.  

And finally, any more plans to return to the Region to film your work?

Of course! I am always looking for opportunities to tell stories from Saudi Arabia. It is my home, and a huge part of who I am, so it is always a place I gravitate to in my writing. And it is still such an exciting setting for drama, as we emerge from years of seclusion and open up to new possibilities, there are so many important and exciting stories to tell.  

The Perfect Candidate opens in theaters in Los Angeles and New York on 14th May, with a US national rollout to follow.

Portrait of Haifaa Al Mansour by Brigitte Lacombe © -- Courtesy of Music Box Films

You may also like