05-15 November 2020

Festivals & Events

HIFF Blog

November 13, 2019

#NewAmericanPerspectives: 5 Questions for THE PERFECT CANDIDATE director Haifaa Al Mansour

The Vilcek Foundation has partnered with the Hawai’i International Film Festival to re-launch the “New American Perspectives” program. The program is the product of a partnership between the Vilcek Foundation and HIFF, focused on highlighting the contributions of foreign-born filmmakers and creative directors to cinema and multimedia arts in the United States.

The 2019 New American Perspectives program features the films and multimedia projects of five talented women artists: Saudi Arabian-born director Haifaa Al Mansour and her film, THE PERFECT CANDIDATE, Filipino-born Isabel Sandoval and her film, LINGUA FRANCA,  Taiwanese-born Emily Ting and her film, GO BACK TO CHINA; Japanese-born HIKARI and her film, 37 SECONDS, and Chinese-born Jenny Dorsey and her virtual- and augmented-reality presentation, ASIAN IN AMERICA. While each of the films and presentations are unique in its style and approach, they are united thematically – addressing stories about identity, self-actualization, and personal agency the context of community, family, and society.

Haifaa Al Mansour wrote, directed, and produced the film, THE PERFECT CANDIDATE. Haifaa is this year’s New American Perspectives featured filmmaker. She will present a Master Class open to HIFF attendees on Saturday, November 16 following the festival premiere of her film, THE PERFECT CANDIDATE. The Vilcek Foundation interviewed Haifaa about her work, and how her experiences as an immigrant have shaped her career and her artistic processes in developing THE PERFECT CANDIDATE and her previous film set in Saudi Arabia, WADJDA. 

How have your experiences as an immigrant shaped your work as an artist and filmmaker? 

Leaving Saudi Arabia helped me see it better from the outside, to see the things that international audiences were curious about and wanted to learn more about the country.  Saudi [Arabia] can be a very difficult place to explain to people who haven’t been there, so it is always hard to know where to begin when telling a story about our lives there. 

Being in American has been an amazing place to build my skills and pursue opportunities that I could not have had anywhere else.  There is, of course, still a lot of work to do in creating an equal playing field for women in the entertainment industry, but I feel like there is a genuine effort to create more opportunities for women, particularly women of color, in Hollywood. 

When did you move to the United States?  What motivated and inspired you to move to the United States?

I married my American husband in 2007, but he was an American diplomat, so we continued living in the Middle East until 2015.  We decided to leave the State Department about 4 years ago - partly for political reasons, but also because we wanted to give our children the chance to live in the US for a while and feel a sense of belonging there.  It has been great for my career as well, as you really need to be in LA and pound the pavement to get work and create opportunities. 

THE PERFECT CANDIDATE focuses on a woman doctor in Saudi Arabia who runs for local office. Why did you want to tell this story? What themes did you want to convey?

Being a doctor is one of the few acceptable jobs in Saudi Arabia for a woman that still has her come into contact with men from outside of her family.  Some families still wouldn’t allow it.  But I wanted to pick a job for a woman that could still consider herself “traditional” but is still pushing the envelope a little in order to do something positive for the society through her vocation.  I wanted to show how the little frustrations of the limitations we face can build up and push a woman who has no interest in being “radical” into taking steps to better her situation.  I have a sister who is a doctor, who is very traditional, and she was actually prevented from travelling to Dubai once because her permission had expired.  So the story started there and grew into the story in the film.

Both of your films WADJDA and THE PERFECT CANDIDATE tell stories about strong women subverting convention in Saudi Arabia.  Who were your inspirations for developing these characters?

I grew up with so many girls like Wadjda, just bursting with personality and potential, but none of them had the chance to do anything with their lives. It is really tragic. There were no avenues open to them to realize their dreams or even develop their ambitions.  Maryam (the main character in this film) is based more on my family and our experiences growing up being seen as outsiders.  Many of my siblings eventually gravitated towards being conservative, since our family was always seen as “liberal,” just so they could fit in and not stand out so much anymore.  It can be exhausting and so difficult to be “different” in a collective, tribal society, so I really understand the pressure to just “be like everyone else.”  But the reality of that life is constant frustration at the limitations you face to your ambition, especially for women who know they are capable of so much more. 

If you could provide any message to young and aspiring filmmakers and artists who are immigrants, what would it be?

Don’t be precious about your stories!  You want to reach as wide an audience as possible, so you need to listen to advice and take suggestions from people outside of your culture. I’ve seen so many filmmakers from my part of the world act stubborn and unwavering in the way they want to tell their stories, ignoring advice, criticism and offers for help along the way, only to see their films fail to reach an audience outside of the territory.  Talk to people from all over and tell them your story and gauge their reaction.  If they don’t understand what you are trying to say, or the reasons your characters are acting a certain way, you need to go back and figure out how to reshape it to make it work for everyone. I come from a very closed off, insular world, so I always want to pitch and explore my ideas with as many people as possible to see if the story is getting through.  

THE PERFECT CANDIDATE premieres on Saturday, November 16 at 3:00 pm at the Regal Dole Cannery Theater.  The film’s screening will be followed by a Master Class with Haifaa, moderated by HIFF’s Executive Director, Beckie Stocchetti. 

Prior to the screening, Haifaa and all of the artists featured as part of the New American Perspectives program will speak as part of a panel, HIFF TALKS: NEW AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, on Saturday, November 16, at 1:00 pm at the IHeartRadio Music Hall.  The discussion is free and open to the public and to all HIFF attendees. 


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