LOS ANGELES -- At first glance, Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour seems just like any other L.A. soccer mom.
But in an industry where guile and chicanery are as essential to the filmmaker's craft as cameras and actors, the unassuming mother of two earned her stripes in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where she made her first feature film, "Wadjda," out the back of an unmarked Toyota Hiace van.
"Everything about it was illegal," the 46-year-old al-Mansour told Nikkei Asia. "I couldn't drive a car or work alongside the men. ... We would communicate by walkie-talkie and I had a monitor to be able to see everything." More than once she had to duck from the prying eyes of the muttawa, Riyadh's religious police.
"Wadjda" -- a thinly-veiled jab on the behalf of Saudi's abaya-clad women -- might well have landed al-Mansour behind bars. The story of a 10-year-old girl's struggle to get her hands on a bicycle, it was enough to win over the influential reformist Prince al-Waleed bin Talal.
Instead of being banned in Saudi Arabia, in 2014 "Wadjda" became the country's first submission to the 86th Academy Awards. Missing out on an Oscar, it was nominated for a BAFTA as well as a string of awards at film festivals in Venice, Vancouver, Rotterdam and Dubai, cementing al-Mansour's status as a poster child for Saudi feminism.
Still, success came at a price. "One of the people who wrote to me said they had a coffin ready for me," recalls al-Mansour, a wry smile playing on her lips.
In the nine years since, al-Mansour's career in Hollywood has largely revolved around strong-willed female characters: "Mary Shelley" (2017), "Nappily Ever After" (2018), and the animated vignette "Miss Camel." Back home in Saudi Arabia, some things have changed. Women can now drive, watch sports, and travel without permission from a male guardian -- rights that many women across the Gulf are still routinely denied.
Perhaps most significantly for al-Mansour, in 2018, authorities in Riyadh lifted a 35-year-old ban, which she says convinced to return home to shoot her latest feature, "The Perfect Candidate."
"Cinema was legal, and I wanted to explore some of what had changed in the country," said al-Mansour. "It felt empowering to go back and shoot legally, but it was still really tough."
On the surface, Saudi Arabia is a society in the throes of liberalization but, as al-Mansour points out, "It takes a while for societal change to catch up to the legislation." Perhaps there is no better example of just how long than the letterbox at her family home in al-Ahs. "It's still full of death threats," she says with a sigh.
In "The Perfect Candidate," Mila al-Zahrani plays an emergency room doctor, Maryam, who, after being refused permission to attend a medical conference in Jeddah because she had forgotten to obtain her father's permission to fly, decides to sign up as a candidate in a local municipal election.
If Maryam were running in Denver, Dusseldorf, or even Dubai, she'd be a shoo-in against the older councilors. But in Saudi Arabia, where only around 10% of Saudi women vote in local government elections, and almost none run for office, she faces an uphill battle. "I hope you win, but I don't vote," one woman tells her at her first campaign event, an all-female fundraiser. "My husband will kill me if I vote for you," says another woman.
Much like "Wadjda," "The Perfect Candidate" is a porthole view of the quotidian frustrations that face women in Saudi Arabia, such when a microphone stops working during a stump speech and a male technician debates whether he can fix it without breaching Shariah law.
Raised on a diet of foreign films, al-Mansour says that while she "loves Bollywood and Jackie Chan," it was Italian neorealism that has most influenced her style. "It's like a little slice of life ... you go to a place and you change a little bit here and there, but you document the place as it is," she explains. "In Saudi Arabia, I'm so intimately involved with the subjects, the landscape and the place, so people can really experience the country firsthand through my work."
Watching "The Perfect Candidate," it is hard not to feel frustrated on her behalf. In one of the opening scenes, Maryam comes to the rescue of an old man hurt in a car accident: "Keep her away from me!," the man screams. Later, when she gets the chance to take on the male councilors during the campaign, excitement turns to dismay when she realizes she'll have to give her address via video stream, seated on the other side of a wall.
Keen to skewer this gender apartheid, al-Mansour isn't looking to play to Western stereotypes, either. Maryam's father (Khalid Abdulrhim) is a loving, laissez-faire musician who resists Wahhabi piety. A clear parallel with al-Mansour's own life, she describes her own father as a "very, very liberal" poet.
Just like al-Mansour, Maryam is anything but submissive. Over the course of the film, she slowly switches to an open-faced headscarf.
"It is important for me that women in the Middle East and Muslim women understand that their face is who they are," says al-Mansour. "But all the scripts I get about Muslim and Arab women [imply that they are] all victims and sad. We are very sassy. We are very strong, so don't take us for granted."
This is key to al-Mansour's success, favoring subtlety and humor over the overtly political. "Comedy is a really important way for people to put their guard down and accept your message," she says. "I'm not very confrontational, and I don't try to expose the culture. If you preach to people without entertaining them, it's not going to be as effective. I see myself as an entertainer, and I would ultimately love for people to enjoy my stories."
Other aspects of her personal life inform her films. When she married her U.S. diplomat husband, she wasn't legally allowed to drive to the ceremony. To prove a point, she commandeered a golf cart instead. "I expect that there will be a lot of conservatives who still think women shouldn't even be driving, never mind making films," says al-Mansour. "But I also hope there will also be some people who embrace this message -- some girls who'll understand what it means to have a passion to be happy. Maybe they'll put themselves out there to become singers, performing artists, doctors... whatever they want!"
Asked to join Saudi Arabia's General Authority for Culture earlier this year, al-Mansour is feeling more optimistic about the future: "I think, in five years, we will see a lot more diversity in the arts. A lot more men from all sorts of backgrounds, a lot more women. You will be seeing a lot more young Saudi women making films."
The years without cinema, she feels, created a "huge hunger" for film in Saudi Arabia. But she also understands that there is a long way to go. "Art house films like "The Perfect Candidate" aren't appreciated here yet like they are in the West. It's something that needs to be nurtured over the years. We need to keep working and growing and supporting local filmmakers to do their thing."
Nevertheless, she sees the shift as positive, and one that will ripple across the Middle East. "Saudi, in a sense, sometimes leads the Arab world. And I think to see this sort of social reform in a country so conservative is amazing. When you empower artists, when you give funds to filmmakers, it makes a nation really stand out."
"We're going to see a different Middle East," says al-Mansour, flashing a thousand-watt smile. "I'm certain of it."