Haifaa Al-Mansour, Zeina Durra and other female filmakers make Sundance ‘best’ lists

This year’s Sundance Film Festival featured 48 percent of films (in competition) made by women, from features to shorts to documentaries.

The Perfect Candidate directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, follows Maryam, a young Saudi doctor, who runs for city council after the male incumbent repeatedly ignores her request to fix the muddy road leading to her clinic. Her spirit and desire for change inspire a movement against tradition and chauvinism in Saudi Arabia. The film is a powerful message towards breaking barriers and establishing women as vital and important parts of the Saudi Arabia society, where they can equally compete with men, not just in hospitals but in the political scene as well. The acting is very strong and powerful, as well as the story. The main character of the film fights to make a change, not just for the people in the hospital but for the women of Saudi Arabia. Her strength is both admirable and inspiring. The cinematography of the film is also incredible as it leaves a sense of home and culture supported by a soundtrack that shows the beauty of the Saudi Arabian culture. It is by far one of the best films directed by women that I have seen so far! 

Haifaa Al-Mansour is the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. She directed her award winning 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows, which influenced a new wave of Saudi filmmakers. The Perfect Candidate stars Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali, Mila Al Zahrani. It was featured at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, and BFI London Film Festival 2019, in addition to Sundance. The film is scheduled to be released sometime in spring this year. 

Luxor, directed and written by Zeina Durra, is another film directed by a female with a Middle Eastern flare. The film follows the story of British aid worker Hana, who has suffered a traumatic past and needs to find change by moving to a place she loves, Luxor. What she didn’t expect there was to meet her old love, someone she loved but never thought will see again – Sultan. Sparks fly between the two when they meet. The film has a nostalgic sense of love, pain and hope, beautifully shot in Egypt. The acting is very intense and the characters are a true representation of what we as people face daily – the struggle to survive, find our purpose and find our true love. The story is well-written, though I feel the director could have elaborated more on the past relationship these two characters had and why was it so important for them to meet again. 

Zeina Durra received her BA in Oriental Studies from Oxford University and an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Film Program. Her directorial debut, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! premiered in US Dramatic Competition at Sundance 2010 to critical acclaim. Luxor stars Andrea Riseborough (Birdman, Oblivion, “Black Mirror”) and Karim Saleh (Amazon’s “Transparent”, Vice & Munich). 

The Fight is directed by Elyse Steinberg (along with Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres) that tells with important cases of immigration, voting, abortion rights and transgender rights in Trump’s America. The lawyers that helped these victims were from ACLU, a team of scrappy lawyers who battle Trump’s historic assault on civil liberties. In the current state where President Trump tries to separate children from their parents, prevent transgender soldiers from entering the army, forbid and make abortion illegal, and revert voting rights back to hundreds of years ago, there are ACLU attorneys ready to fight – despite the criticism and the energy it takes. It’s an emotional documentary that incorporates humor and drama as we witness the daily events in Trump America. It gives us hope for change and that we all need to fight against the injustices. Some moments were very heavy and sad to watch, like the separated kids from their mothers and fathers, the abuse and neglect of children, and the harsh criticism the lawyers received fighting for them. Overall, it was well done and sends the message clearly that it is time for a change and time to fight. It was incredible to see the faces behind the fight for better America and that the victims were able to overcome the struggles thanks to ACLU. It is sad to see the America we live in on the screen in this powerful way.

The three directors previously collaborated on the documentary Weiner, a Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner and BAFTA Award nominee that was shortlisted for an Academy Award.  

Honorable mentions:

Danny’s Girl is an incredibly clever short directed by Emily Wilson, following the life of main character Danny who meets a girl online only to discover that there is something way off about her. She combines non-traditional ideas into humour and delivers the message with a perfect twist. Her desire for genuine connections and strong relationships transcends the screen into her characters. 

Wake Up is a short directed by Olivia Wilde and stars Margaret Qualley from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It is a brilliant short film reflecting on the current state of overuse of technology sending us the message – do not lose ourselves in technology! The plot of the film – a young woman awakens from a state of amnesia at a Manhattan hospital and looks curiously at the world around her as if after a long absence. The view – what we all need to see by not looking at our phones. Every turn in her journey to rediscover who she is, she is met by indifferent strangers, glued to their electronic devices. She’s trying to find herself in a world where screen time replaces authentic social interaction. Both short films left me wanting more and a desire to be turned into longer features. 

This year’s Sundance, which ran from Jan. 23 to Feb. 2, was a great year for women’s films and I only hope to see more brilliant films like that in the future. 

© Nikoleta Morales (2/3/20) FF2 Media

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