The Perfect Candidate by Haifaa Al-Mansour is a fascinating glimpse of women’s changing status in the patriarchal kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Woman in Chargeby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
We first see its heroine Doctor Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) wearing a black, face-covering niqab so that only her eyes are visible, but she’s driving herself in her own 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 the heroine of her previous film, young Wadjda, grown up and now director/screenwriter Haifaa Al-Mansour is showing us what life is like for adult women in Saudi Arabia. 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 still hangs by the entrance to the house, 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 the 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 before she can 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 ever to do so. Predictably, she meets with male prejudice, expressed as both ridicule and hostility. This only makes her more assertive in her candidacy and increases her confidence in public speaking – to such an extent that it’s scandalising. She’s helped in her candidacy 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 possible 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. His musical performances break up a powerful film but are they being used as cultural context or a smokescreen?
The Perfect Candidate is a fascinating window into a hidden world but it doesn’t have the cheeky transgressiveness of Wadjda. Mila Al Zahrani as Maryam becomes very assertive but it’s unclear whether it’s because of the slow burn of frustration or whether the triggers for her transformation could be more explicit. 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 screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 27 March 2020 on Curzon Home Cinema.