The Perfect Candidate by Haifaa Al-Mansour is a fascinating glimpse of women’s changing status in the patriarchal kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Making Wavesby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Perfect Candidate is set in a changing Saudi Arabia. We see Doctor Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) wearing a black, face-covering niqab so all we see is her eyes, but she’s driving herself in her blue car to her job as a doctor in a modern emergency clinic in a suburb of Riyadh. The entry road is potholed, making access for patients difficult. In the clinic, she works alongside male doctors and male and female nurses – some female nurses wear the niqab but some don’t. An injured old man, Abu Musa, is brought in by his grandson Omar (Tareq Al Khaldi), but he violently refuses to be treated, or even touched, by a woman doctor.
It’s almost as if we are seeing young Wadjda grown up and director/screenwriter Haifaa Al-Mansour is showing us what life is like for adult women in Saudi Arabia now. They’ve made some progress towards gender equality only recently, such as being allowed to drive and to work, but it’s not enough. The billowing black abaya is still hanging by the front door, ready to be donned like camouflage before answering the door or venturing outside the walled compound. Mixed-sex socialising in public is still severely restricted and we get a fascinating glimpse of conventions of single-sex wedding parties.
Although she has a certain amount of independence as a doctor, Maryam still frustratingly needs a travel permit authorised by a male guardian to leave the country to fly to a medical conference in Dubai. Her traditional musician father (Khalid Abdulraheem) is out of town and has forgotten to renew his consent so she has humiliatingly to find a distant male relative to sign it.
A random event combined with her determination to get the potholes fixed for the sake of the clinic, prompts Maryam to stand as a candidate for the local council, the first woman to do so. Predictably, she meets with male prejudice, as both ridicule and hostility. This only serves to make her more assertive in her candidacy and to increase her confidence in public speaking – to an extent that becomes scandalising. She’s helped in this by her two sisters, reluctant teenage Sara (Nora Al Awadh) and media-savvy wedding photographer Selma (actor and Saudi social media star Dae Al Hilali).
And her father too is a game-changer and progressive in his own way – although he is one of the most staid establishment versions of a Saudi musician, even traditional music is frowned upon by strict observers of religion and public performances by his group have only recently been allowed in a new relaxation of the rules. But are the interludes of his musical performances used to leaven this powerful film? Are they being used as cultural context or as if its director didn’t have confidence?
The Perfect Candidate is fascinating but it doesn’t have the cheeky transgressiveness of Wadjda. Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam becomes very assertive and though most likely the last straws of the travel permit and the pothole finally made her angry, her transformation, though welcome, of course, is not shown clearly enough. At a significant stage in the film, she takes her niqab off: clearly this is an important symbolic action, but how is it possible for her to have made that choice? Possibly too, her father is a very atypical Saudi father in his laissez-faire attitude towards his daughters but the significance of this is hard to fathom for an outsider. Given what we think we know about Saudi Arabia from the outside, how is it possible for Maryam to meet and collaborate on her project with Omar, albeit with perfect propriety?
But as this endearing and entertaining film clearly shows, though Saudi Arabia is a country where at all times women are reminded of their second-class status, it’s also a society in rapid transition. Who knows what changes Haifaa Al-Mansour will be able to show us in her next film?
The Perfect Candidate premiered at the Venice Film Festival, screens in the BFI London Film Festival on 7 and 8 October 2019 and is released on 13 March 2020 in the UK.