Haifaa Al-Mansour’s latest film, The Perfect Candidate, opens with a doctor in her 20s driving to work. In any other film you wouldn’t register the fact that she’s behind the wheel. But this woman, dressed in a black abaya and niqab, is in Saudi Arabia, which until 2018 banned women from driving. Al-Mansour added the scene as a punch-the-air moment for female audiences in Saudi Arabia, an invite to a collective whoop of victory. “I know that in the west this seems like common-sense stuff,” she says. “But I think they’ve really helped women to see themselves as an independent people.” She fixes me with an earnest look, to see if I get it. “For younger professional women, it’s huge, because it gives them control over their destiny.”
Al-Mansour is Saudi Arabia’s first female director. In 2011, she shot her debut, Wadjda, hiding in the back of a van. It would have been impossible for a woman to be seen openly on the street giving orders to men. So, she kept out of sight and used a walkie-talkie (“But I’m sure you could hear my voice all over Riyadh. ‘Do that!’ ‘Pull the camera back!’”) The film was gorgeous, a funny, big-hearted story about a gobby 10-year-old girl who would stop at nothing to get her hands on a bike. Al-Mansour shrugged off the death threats (“One of them told me they had a coffin ready for me”). Spend five minutes in her company and you are struck by her optimistic energy.
The new film is another inspiring story of female resistance, this time about a young female doctor who runs, almost by accident, for office in local elections. This time around, following the easing of restrictions segregating men and women, Al-Mansour could work in public. “I wasn’t in the van this time,” she grins. “I was shouting at all my crew in person!”
We meet in London on International Women’s Day, when social distancing is still a novelty. Walking into the cafe, 5ft-nothing in her Converse, she shakes my hand and then, mindful of the breach of etiquette, reaches into her handbag for a bottle of hand sanitiser and squirts me a dollop. The exchange smacks of her mix of warmth and no-nonsense.
Four years ago, Al-Mansour moved from Bahrain to Los Angeles with her American husband Bradley Neimann, a diplomat, and their son, Adam, 12, and daughter, Hailey, 10. (“They are very American,” she says of her kids. “They say ‘dude’ with an American accent.”) But she missed home and so she wrote The Perfect Candidate, which stars the impossibly beautiful TV actor Mila Al Zahrani as Dr Maryam, a supremely capable young medic working in a rundown hospital (healthcare is a major employer of women). The film catches society in the midst of a transformation, at a moment when women have more freedom, but society is slow to embrace them. When Maryam holds an all-female fundraiser, the response is depressing: “My husband will kill me if I vote for you.” “I hope you win, but I don’t vote.” I’m not giving anything away to say that Maryam has a tough time of it on the campaign trail – laughed at, patronised by a TV presenter, criticised as shrill and unfeminine.
Was Al-Mansour making a more universal point? “Yeah, they are crushed. Look at Hillary Clinton. But seeing women in leadership positions is something people need to get used to.”
At the start of the film Maryam wears the niqab; as she grows more confident in her identity it comes off. What did Al-Mansour want to say about the veil? “At the beginning Maryam wants to fit in. And what does society expect of women? To cover up. But at the end she understands what defiance means. It’s about respect. A human being’s identity is in their face. I think face covering is one of the most dangerous things that ever happened to the Muslim culture.” For the first time in our conversation Al-Mansour is deadly serious. “We need female Muslim scholars who can deconstruct a lot of the literature about a woman’s body and the veil. Like, for example, when I was a kid I was, I was told: ‘You are like a cake. If you don’t cover it, flies will come.’ So it’s blaming the victim. This is the psychology a lot of Muslim women go through – they have to cover because they’re responsible for someone’s else’s actions.”
The dress code for women has changed in Saudia Arabia, she adds. Women are encouraged not to be completely covered. “But a lot of women still cling to that because that is taught from the beginning that is what makes them good and chaste and noble.”
The film, I think, has demythologising effect, too. It’s a lesson to audiences in the west that behind the abayas and the veils, the women of the Middle East are modern citizens of the world. “Saudi women are sassy and very resourceful,” says Al-Mansour. “You try to buy a carpet from a Saudi woman; she will take all your money. They are very savvy. ”
Al-Mansour gives the impression of being a natural-born rebel. She grew up in small conservative town, and describes herself as a shy kid, the eighth of 12 children in a liberal house. Her father was a poet. Where does the rebellious streak come from? “My parents,” she answers quickly. “We didn’t have money, but I feel really privileged. I was respected. My father and my mother never told me: ‘Because you are a woman you can’t do this.’” Music filled the house, and as teenager she watched Jackie Chan and Bollywood movies. “Whenever I told people at school I listened to music, they’d be like: ‘You’re going straight to hell. I don’t want to play with you.’ So, I felt like an outsider.”
After studying literature at the American University in Cairo, she got a marketing job at a Saudi oil company. “In meetings they would never listen to me. I was invisible.” Al-Mansour began her career in film by making a short films with her siblings. In 2005, she met Neimann at a screening of one of her documentaries at the US embassy in Saudi Arabia where he was working as a cultural attache. When he was posted to Australia, she studied film in Sydney and wrote the script that became Wadjda.
Right now, Al-Mansour’s plan is to make films in Saudi Arabia and the west. She arrived in Hollywood at the right time, she tells me. “I get a lot of chances. I get a lot of meetings. I have a chance now to build a resumé that allows me, hopefully, in a couple of years to direct a really big movie with a big budget.” Would she be up for making a blockbuster? She raises an eyebrow, surprised I would even ask the question. “Yes! I think I can make an amazing $100m film. Ten years ago, that would be unheard of, for a film-maker like me who’s not white and who’s not American, who’s not a man.”
#MeToo and #OscarSoWhite have made real and meaningful differences for women such as Al-Mansour. “What happened with Harvey Weinstein was a wake-up call. All the misogyny that we took for granted is not acceptable any more. There is the intention for improvement and it’s up to us women film-makers to take opportunities and run with them and work really hard and show the world what we’ve got.”
• The Perfect Candidate is released in the UK on digital download on 27 March