The Perfect Candidate (2019)
Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Screenwriter: Haifaa Al-Mansour, Brad Niemann
Starring: Mila Al Zahrani, Dae Al Hilali, Nora Al Awad, Khalid Abdulraheem
After a brief foray into English-language filmmaking (Mary Shelley), trailblazing Saudi Arabian writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour returns to her homeland with further revolution on her mind with The Perfect Candidate.
Doctor Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) reluctantly decides to run for a seat on the Local Council when she realises it is the only way to get much-needed repairs to her underfunded clinic, but the media attention her campaign receives begins to impact her family and friends, and she faces an uphill battle to be taken seriously by the patriarchal society she lives in.
With Wadjda, Al-Mansour began a long journey to be recognised as an artist in her own country. Wadjda followed a 10 year-old tomboy dreaming of owning a bike to race her friends, The Perfect Candidate takes aim on the entire Saudi Arabian patriarchal societal structure. Doctor Maryam’s efforts to be taken seriously as a professional echo Al-Mansour’s perfectly.
We find Doctor Maryam trapped in an impossible situation at the start of the film. Her emergency room that serves the local village is only accessible via a muddy quagmire, the clinic is under-funded and under-staffed and religiously orthodox patients don’t want to be treated by a female doctor, the only one they have.
After her travel document expires while her musician father (Khalid Abdulraheem) is on tour with his band, preventing her from attending a conference in support of becoming a doctor at a city hospital, Maryam reluctantly decides to run for office to gain some amount of independence and affect desperately needed changes back home. Maryam would much rather focus her energies on interviewing for positions in larger hospitals, but without a male relative to verify her documents for renewal she can’t even travel to another city.
“I just want to work in a better place. If I show them what I’m made of they’ll give me a better position”. Maryam knows her country and the restrictions imposed on her gender all too well, but she believes passionately that if she puts the hard work in she will be noticed and her life will improve.
In Saudi Arabia, women have long lived as second-class citizens beholden to men and reliant on their male relatives for any quality of life. Women were only given the right to vote and stand as political candidates in 2015, and it was only in 2019 that women could freely travel and apply for their own documents without a male guardian. Doctor Maryam’s story takes place just before these seismic changes came into place.
A TV interviewer is particularly patronising, presuming that as a female candidate Maryam will be campaigning for parks and playgrounds and her candidacy “will matter mainly to women”. Mila Al Zahrani’s effortlessly natural performance throughout the film is brought into sharp focus in scenes like this, where Maryam is clearly using every ounce of her willpower to remain calm in the face of ignorance.
It’s a darkly amusing echo of reality that Maryam has to address her potential voters in a tent next door by video call. Her male audience scoffs at and ignores this woman addressing them to ask for their votes but are utterly offended when Maryam actually enters the tent to challenge their views face-to-face. As already alluded to, Al-Mansour herself similarly had to direct her male cast on Wadja from inside a van.
While Maryam’s father (and all-important male guardian) seems relatively supportive and progressive in his attitude to his daughters’ lifestyles – “I will not stop any of you from doing what you want to do” – does her father really mean this or should there be the caveat? – “as long as you’re quiet about it.”
He’s still a Saudi Arabian man and still fears the shame of his daughter acting brazenly and immodestly on the public stage. Her father may not have been present for her act of flagrant rebellion against the patriarchy in the tent, but he certainly hears about it from his bandmates, and may not know what to think.
You may think you know what to expect from The Perfect Candidate, and to an extent you probably do. It’s a well-worn story of oppression that admittedly hits some familiar beats, but Al-Mansour’s passion for a drive towards equality in her home nation and around the world, and her raw talent for employing film language to do so, earns an enthusiastic recommendation.