Saudi Arabia’s most prominent female film director says there is a “momentum change” in the country and that cinema is one of the most important tools in changing the fate of women, who are still are not considered legal persons there.
Haifaa al-Mansour – who is one of only two women in the main 21-film competition – premiered The Perfect Candidate, her drama about a young female doctor who runs for public office, at the Venice film festival on Wednesday.
“Film is a tool for change and a way to introduce new ideas,” she said. “For Saudi women – and women in the Middle East in general – there is a lot of push now: women can vote and drive, but women are reluctant to accept those roles.”
“I want more women to be active members of [Saudi] society,” she added. “It’s going to be hard … but there is a momentum change in Saudi Arabia right now and it’s a chance for women to take advantage of it. By making a film like this I want them to feel it is not the end of the world if you run [for office] and lose.”
When asked if the Venice festival should have more then two films by female directors in its main competition, Al-Mansour said she believes more funding and support for female film-makers is the simplest way to improve representation.
“There is a crack now, and we see things happening and changing. But it needs to happen at an earlier stage,” she said. “It starts from financing. It starts with studios opening up their systems to more diverse directors. We’ve seen a lot of women prove themselves, like Brie Larson who is carrying a huge film and showing it can make box office.”
Al-Mansour – who joined the kingdom’s General Authority for Culture, a body that oversees cultural and artistic development in Saudi Arabia – in 2018, spoke of the differing attitudes towards male and female directors in the film industry.
“A lot of women do a hit Sundance movie and it takes 10 years before they do another movie,” she said. “Then a male director makes a hit Sundance movie and he will move straight into making $30m movies. He makes that film and his career develops and moves. There is a crack in the system now, and we need to capitalise on it … it’s the only way.”
The director became emotional when discussing the changes that she hopes can happen for young women in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. “We should come together as women and support each other,” she said.
“I think cultivating that sisterhood is the beginning of a real feminist movement at heart where we can empower a younger generation to not have to work as hard as we did to assert themselves. To come to the workplace and be respected. I want my daughter to enjoy a place like that in the future.”