When Haifaa Al-Mansour was a child, movie theaters were illegal. But the small Saudi Arabian town where she lived with her parents and siblings had a Blockbuster outlet. Her father, a poet, rented movies there often, “mostly to keep his 12 kids busy and out of his hair,” Al-Mansour said. She spent her childhood watching Hollywood hits, Bollywood musicals and Chinese martial arts flicks.
In 2012, Al-Mansour became the country’s first female feature-length filmmaker, with “Wadjda,” a gentle neorealist movie about a girl determined to buy a bicycle. She directed it while hidden in the back of a van, as working with men — or even driving herself to set — was prohibited at that time.
“I don’t know if I would be a filmmaker if I had grown up in the United States,” she said. “I imagine I would have had a very successful career, but maybe I wouldn’t have felt the need to have a voice.”
After some time in Hollywood — “Nappily Ever After,” “Mary Shelley” — she returned to Saudi Arabia to make “The Perfect Candidate,” a quiet drama about a Saudi doctor, Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), who runs for office in a local election while her father, a musician, travels with the national band. This time, she could direct out in the open.
Cinemas are legal in the kingdom now. And last year, a few of them screened “The Perfect Candidate,” which Saudi Arabia submitted to the Oscars. “It’s amazing to see art seeping into a society that is very conservative, very closed,” she said during a recent video call. “We hope art brings tolerance and elevates the culture.” The film arrives in American theaters on Friday.
Al-Mansour waited out the pandemic at home, in a suburb of Los Angeles where she lives with her husband, Brad Niemann, a diplomat, and their two school-age children. (Her younger child, Haylie Niemann, stars in “The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,” Al-Mansour’s 2018 short film for Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales film series.) Seeing everyone masked sometimes made her feel like she was back in Saudi Arabia, where many women have long worn face coverings.
She spent the months dancing, cooking and preparing a few new projects: an animated film, a horror movie and an adaptation of the young-adult novel “The Selection,” by Kiera Cass. All of Al-Mansour’s films center on spirited women. Even the animated one, which is about a lady camel. “If you have this amazing female protagonist at the heart, I’m very interested in unlocking that script and being close to it,” she said.
On the video call, Al-Mansour discussed her cultural fundamentals, which include punk rock, Arab cinema and TikTok recipes. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
I love the spirit of independent American bands. My husband, he’s a huge punk fan and our kids, we take them to concerts. Jawbreaker captures the raw, intense emotions of youth and heartache. Beyond the rough outside, Jawbreaker has a lot of sweet messages. “Busy” is about helping your friends. “Save Your Generation” is about being active and involved. They sound really tough — very, very different than the music I grew up with. But music was so vilified in Saudi for so long, it took on many of the aspects of American underground music. I have such a deep respect for singers who dare to take on a profession that a large part of the society sees as immoral.
2. “The Nightingale’s Prayer (Dua Al-Karawan)”
I like to show people this film to show how amazing the Golden Age of Arabic cinema was. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking film and so advanced for its time. It is set in Egypt, in a small town there. A very handsome engineer, he lives in a big house. There are two girls. One of them falls in love with him. When her uncle finds out, he kills her. The other sister witnesses that. She wants revenge. It is about honor killing, but told as a love story. It makes people fall in love with those girls who are breaking the rules, and makes them understand what it means to be a young woman.
3. Miss Camel beauty pageants
There is nothing more authentically a Gulf experience than a camel beauty pageant, a competition to find the perfect camel. It has to be pure-bred; it has to have a very long neck, full lips. The prizes are so crazy these days that we have participants disqualified for Botox and wax injections. It’s insane! But it is such an authentic, lovely celebration of something that has been a part of our culture for eons. I’m working on an animated movie about the Miss Camel pageants. It’s about a camel, a sassy, Saudi camel who thinks she’s cut out for bigger things than just being a milk camel in the streets.
I love this show. I’ve been catching up on it during the pandemic. I really love Alia Shawkat. Her timing is just wonderful, and she is a fearless actress. And nobody’s treating her as an Arab woman. Like, veiled and very obedient. She is just a quirky teenager. And it was very inspiring to see that. And I love that kind of humor. It’s very direct and unapologetic. I wish I could write humor like that. I’m trying.
This movie still absolutely terrifies me. My dad got us this when I was way too young to see it. I remember the blood dripping. And the evil laugh of the people who became monsters. It was so scary! I watched it just a few weeks ago, and it’s still creeping me out. I’m working on a horror film at the moment. It is about the experience of alienation Muslims sometimes have. Even though people are very polite, you can feel that maybe they won’t accept you. I wanted to capture that moment and what it means, because it’s very horrifying.
Each episode follows a crime and how the police solve it. I’ve indulged in it during the pandemic, because it’s on all the time! I love the way the [episodes] build up the drama and mystery. It’s an amazing, fascinating study of human nature and what can make a “normal” person do something terrible. Usually infidelity and finances. It goes into places that I never go to. Small towns around America. They even go into people’s houses. And parking lots and like gas stations, a lot of things happen there.
7. Cartoons by Shawn Kerri
Shawn is such a legendary figure. She was one of the most famous poster artists of the early punk rock movement and creator of the infamous logo for the Circle Jerks. She was in one of the first all-girl rock bands in California, the Cockpits. She wrote stories for Disney, “Cracked” and “Hustler” simultaneously. Her work is incredible — fun, exciting and so well-executed. My husband and I are developing a documentary about her. We’re hoping to make people more aware of her art. Women like that, they’re always on the verge of success, and they disappear. And that is sad. I want to understand why.
8. TikTok recipes
My kids are on TikTok, so I have to be on TikTok, I have to understand. As a parent, you always want to know where your kids are, just to make sure they’re safe. My 11-year-old daughter and I are obsessed with TikTok recipes. People are so creative, and the medium is perfect for succinct recipes that anyone can do. I made short ribs, which took forever to cook. I was intimidated, but TikTok made it easier. And I made oysters. It said that they have to be fresh, they have to be alive. When you clean them, you have to knock on them. If they close their shell, that means they’re alive. I went to the kitchen and I started cleaning them and I knocked on them, and they closed their shells and that is when it hit me, they’re alive! I was so scared! So never oysters again. They were delicious. But never again.
“Waltz With Bashir” is an Israeli movie that was nominated for an Oscar, an animated documentary about war generals reconstructing their memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacre [an outbreak of sectarian violence in Beirut in 1982, in which hundreds and possibly thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were killed]. It leads to an emotional gut punch at the end. I love the possibilities that come from animation, drawing the past in a way that is infused with emotion and a clear perspective.
They celebrate the voice of female filmmakers. The films are all so distinct and diverse. It’s a wonderful experiment in tying together disparate stories through the common thread of womanhood. They don’t care if you show their fashion. It is just, like, tell a story that is clear and dear to you. My film, “The Wedding Singer’s Daughter,” it’s almost a prologue to “The Perfect Candidate.” I wanted to tell the story of a girl who is dragged by her mom, a wedding singer, to this exclusive wedding. It was fun. My daughter was the star. She did really a great job. I was so proud of her.