Pioneering Saudi filmmaker vies for Venice glory amid recent gender reforms

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Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa al-Mansour cried as she spoke about the barriers to women’s success around the world Thursday in Venice, where she is one of only two female directors in contention for the festival’s top prize.

Mansour’s film “The Perfect Candidate” tells the story of a young Saudi doctor who decides to run in local elections in her city despite formidable resistance. The movie dwells on the challenges and new opportunities in the conservative kingdom.

The director, who had to direct parts of her acclaimed 2012 film “Wadjda” while concealed in the back of a van, said Saudi Arabia was now “more open.”

“I don’t have to be in a van now,” she said at a press conference at the Venice film festival, which is itself facing controversy over a lack of female representation.

“The Perfect Candidate” is one of two films directed by women out of 21 in the running for this year’s Golden Lion top prize, a year after just one movie by a woman was selected.

Mansour said that while she wanted to see more films directed by women, a boost was also needed to help them at the earlier stages of finding scripts and financing.

The first woman to shoot a film in her country, Mansour has lived and worked extensively outside of Saudi Arabia, particularly in the US. She said she felt women all over the world were facing a “similar resistance.”

“You don’t come with a sense of authority as a woman. And when you take a leadership position, you always have to really fight,” she said.

She gave an example of her own experience facing pushback from a prop assistant when she told him to change the picture on a wall.

And she burst briefly into tears when she said she wanted women to work together to overcome these obstacles.

“We can empower younger generations... to come to the workplace and find themselves respected without really having to go through that fight,” she said.

“I want my daughter to enjoy a place like that in the future.”

For “Wadjda” -- about a girl who dreams of riding her own bicycle -- Mansour talked to her team via walkie-talkie while hidden in the van.

“The Perfect Candidate”, with its scenes of women driving, working and running for elected office, as well as musicians playing public performances, showcases the country’s reforms since then.

This month, Saudi Arabia officials said they had begun implementing a landmark change allowing women over the age of 21 to receive passports and travel abroad without permission from a male guardian.

The move comes as a string of reforms by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were implemented in the Kingdom, including a landmark decree last year that overturned the ban on women drivers.

A ban on cinemas has also been overturned.

The 76th Venice festival runs until September 7.

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