A few years back, Saudi Arabia's film industry was practically non-existent. But, it's come a long way since.
The kingdom has been putting much effort into its cinema sector in hopes of securing a place on the international awards map. To do so, local authorities recently submitted a Saudi film to the 92nd Academy Awards which is set to take place in February 2020. It's titled The Perfect Candidate, a name that fits quite perfectly with the occasion.
Directed by one of the kingdom's most prominent directors, Haifaa Al-Mansour, the film will now be considered for selection to compete in the Best International Feature Film Oscar category.
The dramedy tells the story of a female doctor facing gender-based challenges while running for the municipal council. Like several of Al-Mansour's other features, the film sheds light on women who live in male-dominated societies and their struggle to win the most basic of rights.
Though The Perfect Candidate highlights serious issues affecting millions of Saudi women, the film evenly integrates a hint of local humor and tradition.
Speaking to Arab News, Al-Mansour went into detail about this specific aspect of her film, saying:
"We have a great sense of humor that people don’t see. In film, we can show that — it’s something people will discover."
The film includes other details that capture the spirit of life in Saudi Arabia — from local cuisine to "public versus private" customs in the kingdom.
"In Saudi there is a huge distinction between what is public and what is private. In private, people sing, have fun, and are fluid. Once people go out, they are reserved, because that is the way the culture is. With film, you will get a chance to see how people are in private. This is the only way that people can see who we are — by opening our heart through film," Al-Mansour explained.
The powerful filmmaker is one of the most prominent cinema figures in Saudi Arabia. She's made her mark on the international front previously as director of the English-language feature Mary Shelley and the Netflix rom-com Nappily Ever After.
The film is the third Saudi feature to be sent in for Oscar consideration
In 2018, the film made history as the first local feature to ever be supported by the Saudi Film Council. After its release, it garnered rave reviews from viewers and critics during several of its screenings at international festivals.
The feature is one of only two films helmed by female directors that competed for the International Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion award this year. The Perfect Candidate has now become the third Saudi film to be submitted for consideration.
This comes after Wadjda - also directed by Al-Mansour - was submitted to the Oscars in 2013 and after the film, Barakah Meets Barakah, was submitted in 2016. Both films did not reach final nomination rounds in the foreign film category.
The cinema sector is flourishing in the kingdom
Slowly but surely, Saudi Arabia is strengthening the sector by supporting local talent. The kingdom has also been encouraging the work of Saudi women in cinema.
When Al-Mansour shot her 2012 debut film Wadjda - which tells the story of a young Saudi girl determined to buy a bicycle - she had to hide in a van to get work done in the kingdom. In a statement to the media, the director expressed her relief at how much the situation has transformed for Saudi women working in the industry.
"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 moviegoing industry is expected to generate huge revenues for the kingdom. Since the country lifted its long-standing ban on cinemas, people have been flocking to movie theaters. The decision has also affected local investment in the field as more production companies are now willing to work on Saudi films. In the near future, new cinema complexes will open in smaller cities across the country.