Saudi actress Mila Al Zahrani arrives for the screening of 'The Perfect Candidate' at the Venice Film Festival. Photo: AFP / Vincenzo Pinto

Saudi Arabia’s Haifaa al-Mansour cried as she spoke about the barriers to women’s success around the world in Venice this week, 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,” but women were “shy” to grasp new freedoms and opportunities, such as driving and voting.

“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.

The row has been further stoked by the festival’s decision to select a film by Roman Polanski, who was convicted for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old in 1978.

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

Saudi actress Dhay, left, Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, center, and Saudi actress Mila Al Zahrani, right, at the Venice Film Festival. Photo: AFP / Vincenzo Pinto

For Wadjda, which was 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 confirmed 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 reform comes after high-profile attempts by women to escape alleged guardianship abuse despite a string of reforms by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a landmark decree last year that overturned the world’s only ban on women drivers.

A decades-long ban on cinemas has also been overturned.

The 76th Venice Film Festival runs until September 7.

– AFP 

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