Wadjda, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s 2012 feature debut, was the first film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia. After a couple of largely ignored English-language projects, Al-Mansour returns to telling the stories of life as a female in her native country, and she’s made a film that matches the simple power of Wadjda.
Where Wadjda concerned a young girl who wanted nothing more extravagant than a bicycle, The Perfect Candidate centres on a doctor, Maryam (Mila Al-Zahrani), who would like the road to her hospital paved, so that patients can reach it easily. What seems a modest request is made a near un-winnable battle because Maryam is a woman and being a woman in Saudi Arabia means having control over very little.
In the film’s opening shot, we see Maryam driving, a right Saudi women were only given in 2018. Maryam seizes any opportunity she is given. She is intelligent and assertive, but to many men she’s a problem. An elderly patient refuses to be treated by her, insisting that a male nurse take care of him, despite him being unqualified to do so. When Maryam tries to travel to a medical conference, in the hope of landing an important new job, she’s told her permit to travel has expired and she needs the permission of her father to renew it. Her rush to try to get a new permit leads to a family friend, a government official, who is too busy to see anyone except candidates for the city council elections. On a frustrated whim, Maryam signs up, becoming the first woman to run for election. If elected, she will repair the road to the hospital.
Al-Mansour directs with a mix of anger, exasperation and optimism. The men of the film are a mix of the infuriatingly arrogant (even Maryam’s largely kind father is a hypocrite, disapproving of his daughter’s ‘selfish’ choices while he swans around the country trying to fulfil his dream of becoming a musician) and the modestly progressive. Some cautiously applaud her candidacy, but only when nobody’s looking. The women are shown to be equally mixed in their outlook. While one of Maryam’s sisters is a gung-ho feminist who leads her campaign, her youngest sister, a teenager, is appalled at Maryam behaving so immodestly. Al-Mansour shows a country that is changing but trying to move out of a mindset it’s held for countless years.
Al-Mansour’s direction is straightforward to a point that it would be uninteresting if her subject were not so vital (perhaps why her English language films failed to excite), but her storytelling here is impassioned. She presents absurdly trivial problems that become dramas due to her country’s gender politics, e.g. a small technical hitch at a wedding is rendered impossible to fix because a man cannot enter a room of women, until Maryam rolls her eyes and works out how to fix it herself. Her point is that to treat everyone the same is easy, it just requires rational thought.
While Maryam’s ultimate goal is to become a powerful politician, her fight to be listened to and taken seriously is just as much of a prize. In demanding to have the stories of Saudi women heard, al-Mansour is, if not one of the most technically special, one of the most important film directors in the world right now.
- Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour
- Starring: Mila Al Zahrani, Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali
- Release date: March 27 (Curzon Home Cinema)