Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'The Perfect Candidate' Sees A Saudi Doctor Driving Change

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

From the opening scene of "The Perfect Candidate," it's clear that this is a movie about driving change. In fact, the first thing we see is our protagonist, Maryam Alsafan, driving down a dirt road to get to the clinic where she works as a doctor. But that dirt road goes on to symbolize much more, eventually propelling Maryam to run for office in the quest to get the clinic's entrance paved.

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour joins us now from Los Angeles. Welcome to the program.

HAIFAA AL-MANSOUR: Oh, thank you so much, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maryam is played with this kind of smoldering calm by Mila Al Zahrani. She doesn't set out to make a feminist statement with her campaign, but she's kind of pushed to a breaking point by the daily indignities of being a young woman in Saudi Arabia with professional ambitions. What inspired this film?

AL-MANSOUR: I think there is a lot of changes that are happening around women in Saudi Arabia. But a lot of the times, women are hesitant to take that change. And I'm speaking about middle-class women who are mainly educated in Saudi Arabia, and they go abroad only for a brief time for a vacation. They are always controlled by their families and the social code. And Maryam is a great example for that. She's well-educated. She's a doctor. She has even the freedom - she comes from a middle class, yes. And her father allows her to do things, but she still cannot break away from what she thinks is expected from a woman.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, she decides she's had enough after trying to go to a medical conference, but her permit to travel, which has to be approved by her father, has expired. And she ends up applying to become a candidate because that's the only way to get in to see a male family member who perhaps could help with that travel permit. But the real catalyst is the road in front of her hospital. Tell me about that road and what it represents.

AL-MANSOUR: Well, it represent change for sure, but also it represents a dream. It represents what we want. We think that we are focused on getting one thing, but there is what I call the byproduct of the journey of achieving our dreams, that it is really what makes us who we are.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, but it's also a symbol of corruption and neglect. I mean, if a country as rich as Saudi Arabia can't pave the road to a hospital, it says something. We see patients sort of ill, old, you know, sick, getting stuck in a huge pit of mud to try and get help.

AL-MANSOUR: Saudi Arabia is a country that is developing. There are clinics even sometimes around the U.S. and small towns that are in way worse shape. We cannot just say it is corruption. And it's not only Saudi Arabia have lots of problems when it comes to sexism, when it comes to a lot of political setups. But people need to change at heart to change that. Women now are allowed to travel and go abroad and study, but women still are controlled by the social code. They don't want to travel abroad because the consequences that they may not get married and they will be stigmatized as a person who are too liberal. And these are things that really need to change and won't change unless we change people's values.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. There's this very touching scene where Maryam is on the balcony with her sister, and she says she just wants to work in a good place, that if she shows them what she's made of, she'll be respected. And her sister says, I'm not sure that's how it works. And then Maryam responds, but we have to try. And as you mentioned, things are changing for women in Saudi Arabia - slowly, but they are. And this film seems to carry that message.

AL-MANSOUR: Yeah, I think change is a big word. And a lot of people think of a change like it is going to happen overnight. And the reality is the change needs to go deeper, and it has to take its time and its course. There are a lot of music concerts coming back to Saudi Arabia, and a lot of people, like, don't want them because they - for so long in Saudi, we are educated that music is forbidden and it is your way to go to hell. So a lot of people, if there is a concert coming to a small town, people will lobby against it and will try to push the performers out. So it needs time for people to accept. And I think it is happening. And I can see in my small town, people are way more relaxed now. They are not as militant as before.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 2012, you directed the first feature film to be shot entirely in the kingdom. I mean, you've made many movies outside the country as well. And you're talking about this change, this acceptance towards music and culture. What's changed in the film industry since then? I mean, what compels you to keep going back and making films within Saudi Arabia?

AL-MANSOUR: I think it is a place that I'm close to. And I tell stories about people I know, like my mom and my family. And I always try to be very close to my characters. And when I filmed the first film, the country was segregated, and I wasn't allowed to film in the streets. And there was no funding, like no public funding for film. And now there are a lot of film festivals around the kingdom, and there are funding for arts. As an artist, I've always felt as a fugitive in Saudi before. But now I feel like I'm respected and I can fight for my place in public.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just want to dig into this a little bit because you said you had always felt like a fugitive. And I'm wondering how, in terms of even the context of the film, how you're viewed as a woman inside your country?

AL-MANSOUR: I've been making films for so long. There is a kind of respect that we developed. I think they - I'm a person who is liberal. I'm very progressive, but I respect where everybody's coming from. And all I want is respect to myself. And I think that it allowed me to work in Saudi Arabia, even when it was very conservative. And a woman, I don't cover my hair. I don't believe that - in a lot of, like, restrictive religious, ideologies that surround women. And I think that is very - to a lot of the conservative, it's a position that they cannot embrace easily. But I think because I respected them, they felt like they are compelled to show some respect back.

And that is what I mean. Like, it is important to drive change that way - to lead, but not to offend. And for me, it is really important to make a film like "The Perfect Candidate" and people in Saudi Arabia see it, hoping that women will be inspired to change their situation within the family, within their workplace, with them taking actual steps to be happy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Haifaa Al-Mansour. Her film "The Perfect Candidate" opens May 14 in New York and Los Angeles. Thank you very much.

AL-MANSOUR: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.