“Is this a women’s rights thing?” skeptical onlookers ask a young Saudi doctor who’s announced she’s running for local council in The Perfect Candidate, which recently screened at the London Film Festival. It’s a rather apt question to raise in director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s fourth feature film—and her second made in Saudi Arabia—given the Kingdom’s recent breakthroughs for women’s rights.
Riding A Wave of Change
Written by Al-Mansour and Brad Niemann, The Perfect Candidate follows a young doctor named Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), who unexpectedly runs for election to her local town council. Determined to prove herself, Maryam enlists her two sisters Selma (Dae Al Hilali) and Sara (Nora Al Awadh) to help with her campaign (and provide some excellent comic relief). The film not only shows how Maryam’s friends and family meet her run with initial apprehension, but also depicts how the local community wrap their heads around the concept of a female candidate.
The Perfect Candidate rides on the wave of historic changes around women’s rights that have taken place in Saudi Arabia within the last three years. The Kingdom, formerly the only country in the world to ban female drivers, started allowing women to drive in June 2018. In August 2019, Saudi authorities also announced women could travel abroad freely and independently without a male guardian’s permission. Fittingly, Al-Mansour opens The Perfect Candidate with Maryam behind the wheel, and problems around traveling abroad play a critical role in spurring her candidacy.
Furthermore, The Perfect Candidate isn’t a dissident film; it’s the first movie made with official support from the Saudi Film Council. At the 71st Cannes Film Festival, the Saudi Film Council pitched themselves as the next big players in cinema, announcing “we’re coming to build an industry.” The fact that Al-Mansour, as the Kingdom’s first female director, is the driving force behind this newly launched industry shows the degree of change that’s happened in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom seems to have high hopes for The Perfect Candidate, recently submitting the film as its official entry for the International Feature Film Award at 2020’s Oscars.
Persistent Sexist Attitudes
Even with policy changes and international film aspirations, Saudi Arabia must still contend with everyday cultural attitudes around women’s rights. The Perfect Candidate offers an empathetic glance into how such attitudes may continue to pose a barrier for women in the Kingdom, even with reforms in place.
In the film, Maryam has certain freedoms—she has a good job, she drives, and her father trusts her and her two sisters to be alone in the house while he is away. However, the Kingdom’s all-consuming sexism still stifles each victory. We see how older male patients refuse Maryam’s treatment, and request less qualified male nurses instead. When Maryam wants better roads to her clinic, authorities ignore her requests due to her gender. The final straw comes when Maryam has a chance to attend a medical conference in Dubai, but can’t go because her father isn’t around to sign a new travel permit. This becomes the accidental catalyst for Maryam’s run for office; her limitations have forced her to take action.
The Perfect Candidate frames Maryam’s struggle in personal terms, a choice that allows audiences to focus on her as a multifaceted character, and better understand the gap between everyday attitudes and abstract policy. Maryam doesn’t want to change the entire political system; she only wants to help her clinic and do her job as a doctor properly. She’s simply trying to carve out her own identity, with fierceness and determination bubbling beneath the surface until the precise moment to strike.
Thus, when events don’t go so positively in the film, audiences can feel Maryam’s frustration. Unsurprisingly, Maryam meets skeptical men—some in shock that she’s addressing them face-to-face, others who tell her that “a woman’s place is in the home.” During an interview, Maryam faces constant interruptions with questions about gardens and playgrounds for children, insinuating that women’s issues are all she can (and will) talk about. While women lend some support by attending Maryam’s fundraisers and parties, getting them to vote is yet another challenge.
A First Step
By capturing a rarely seen contemporary Saudi community, The Perfect Candidate feels just as groundbreaking as Al-Mansour’s previous film Wadjda (2012)—which was the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia (by the first-ever Saudi female director no less), when cinemas were still illegal. Few major media outlets cover everyday Saudi life beyond sensational headlines, much less provide the poignance and humor of The Perfect Candidate.
The Perfect Candidate is not just a striking achievement that highlights an evolving Saudi Arabia. By expertly portraying the lengths to which Maryam goes in order to gain respect from her community, the film also reminds us about sexism’s deep roots—and how much more progress the Kingdom and the world at large still need to make on women’s rights.
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The Perfect Candidate – Saudi Arabia. Dialog in Arabic. Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Running time 1 hour 41 minutes. First released August 28, 2019. Starring Mila Al Zahrani, Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali, Khalid Abdulraheem, Shafi Alharthy, Tareq Al Khaldi, Khadeeja Mua’th.