Saudi female directors took center stage at the 76th edition of the International Venice Film Festival. Filmmakers Haifaa Al-Mansour and Shahad Ameen both screened films at the cinematic event and participated in panels where they focused on the need for women to "be seen and heard."
Al-Mansour's feature, The Perfect Candidate, is one of only two films helmed by female directors that competed for the festival's Golden Lion award. The film is centered around the story of a female doctor facing gender-based challenges while running for the municipal council. It garnered rave reviews from viewers and critics.
Ameen's film, Scales (Sayidat Al-Bahr), focuses on a young girl trying to survive against superstitious villagers who believe female children must be sacrificed to mysterious creatures inhabiting local waters. The film screened out of the competition but still managed to scoop an award - the Verona Film Club Award - by the independently run Venice section dedicated to debut works.
Al-Mansour and Ameen, both Saudi women working towards the empowerment of their own people and women in general, hope their work "will convey a message of empowerment at a time when Saudi Arabia has been easing male guardianship rules."
"Showing a lead female character, it is indirectly empowering women. The one who will make most money in this film is the girl, she is not a supporting role, she is the main role. You invest in her journey, love her and root for her that is what is very important for a conservative audience to see," Al-Mansour explained, according to Arab News.
In the opening of Al-Mansour's feature, she captures a major change that had recently taken place in the kingdom. The protagonist, Maryam, is seen driving a car to work. Women in Saudi Arabia were finally granted their right to drive in June 2018, which came after a long-standing ban that was lifted in 2017.
Now is the time for Saudi women to raise their voices and tell their stories, Ameen believes. "I want to see more female voices. Especially with girls, they have tremendous goals," she told Arab News. "Every time I talk to another filmmaker, it's unique, because when a part of the community has been silenced for so long — knowingly or unknowingly — when they fight for the right to talk, they will tell stories that no one has ever heard. I really look forward to hearing more of those stories, and hopefully we'll see more in the next few years," she added.
Al-Mansour is known for her debut film Wadjda, which she shot in Saudi Arabia even at a time when women were still denied most of their basic rights. While directing the 2012 film - which tells the story of a young Saudi girl determined to buy a bicycle - she had to hide in a van to do her work. During her latest interview, she explained how the situation has completely transformed for Saudi women in film.
"It's changed a lot, I don't have to be in the van anymore ... and accessibility ... we shot in really remote areas and we were able to shoot," she said.
The filmmaker, who's made her mark on the international front by directing the English-language feature Mary Shelley, hopes Saudi female audiences will feel empowered after watching The Perfect Candidate.
Huge year for Arab cinema at VIFF
Two Arab films premiered at the festival this year. Other than Al-Mansour and Ameen's features, Lebanese film All This Victory also premiered at the event and won three major awards during its Film Critics' Week.
Directed by Ahmad Ghossein, the drama is set in 2006, the year Lebanon witnessed a war with Israel. A co-production between Lebanon, France, and Germany, the film tells the story of Marwan, a son searching for his father after the latter refused to leave his village during the summer war.
This year also saw Tunisian actress Hend Sabri become the first Arab woman to be selected as a jury member of the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for a Debut Film.
In what could be the most surprising of moves, the first Hollywood all-Arabic action movie premiered during the festival. Titled Mosul, the movie was filmed in the Iraqi dialect and entirely shot in Morocco for security purposes. It was produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, the minds behind the world's biggest blockbuster Avengers: Endgame.