Like most of us living in the west, I could only really imagine what day-to-day life for a Saudi Arabian woman is like. Unless you’re going off personal experiences or first-hand knowledge, mainstream news and media outlets will tell you it’s a strict, archaic, and extremist country that oppresses its women.
So when I sat down to watch Haifaa Al Mansour’s fourth and latest feature film The Perfect Candidate, I wasn’t sure what to expect of a story set in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Al Mansour, however, is a different story.
Her feature film debut Wadjda, back in 2012, was a critically acclaimed hit. The spirited story about a ten-year-old girl who enters a Quran competition so she can use the prize money to buy a bike and race with the boys was and still is irresistible (go watch it if you haven’t already).
At the time, Al Mansour was the first Saudi Arabian female filmmaker and Wadjda was the first full-length feature film to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. All ground-breaking feats, yes. But did you know she directed scenes via walkie-talkie so that men weren’t seen to be taking instructions from a woman in public? And that her crew had to hide their camera equipment to avoid getting caught by authorities?
Al Mansour is every bit as fierce and determined as the women she makes her films about, and these qualities carry through firmly in her work. After Wadjda, she went on to direct Mary Shelley, Nappily Ever After, and even an episode of Netflix’s mystery teen drama series The Society.
Al Mansour’s return to her Saudi Arabian homeland comes five years later, this time with her husband and co-writer Brad Niemann to give us The Perfect Candidate. The story follows Maryam, portrayed by Mila al-Zahrani, a doctor working in a small-town emergency hospital that’s under-resourced and desperately needs its main road fixed.
Frustrated with the lack of support from her local council, Maryam decides to pave a new path for herself by running for council so she can solve the problem herself. At the same time, her father (a wedding singer, played by Khalid Abdulrahim) finally gets a permit to perform in public with his band – he’s waited 20 years for this and feels like he can now be taken seriously as a performer.
Despite legislative reform in the kingdom in the last few years, parts of Saudi society are still grappling with changing attitudes towards women and the arts – and both Maryam and her father’s actions throughout the film are met with reticence and disapproval.
Al Mansour opens the film with a scene of Maryam driving her bright blue Hyundai to the hospital she works at. It was only in 2018 that the Saudi government lifted the ban on women driving cars so looking back on this scene, it felt like Al Mansour was setting the tone for the bold journey her protagonist is about to embark on.
Shortly after, an elderly man is rushed into the hospital after being hit by an oncoming truck. He refuses to be treated by or even make eye contact with Maryam because she’s a woman. “People won’t succeed if their chief is a woman!” he cries out at one point.
Maryam takes it in her stride and continues to run her initial checks until she’s interrupted by a male doctor who tells her to leave the patient to be treated by the male nurses. Although Maryam is perfectly capable of doing her job, cultural dogma pushes her to sidelines – which isn’t unfamiliar to me (as a British Bangladeshi woman) but was a rude awakening of what women in Maryam’s circumstances have to deal with.
Through the course of the film, we see more instances where the culture, law and sexism each play a role in hampering Maryam’s ambition. Some not as glaringly obvious as others. Whilst touring on the road, Maryam’s father sees her electoral campaign video and dismissively says to his bandmate “My daughter acts like a lion at home, but in public, she’s more like a mouse.”
Though he states earlier in the film that he’s never gotten in the way of his daughters doing what they want, his half-hearted support is stunted by the fact that he doesn’t believe his daughter has it in her to oppose long-standing ideals of how a woman should behave in their society.
It’s not an uncommon mindset; allowing reform and liberation is one thing but giving women the tools and support they need to thrive is another. But Al Mansour’s intention isn’t to blame the men or society. There is no harsh or righteous criticism, she’s simply letting us see how it plays out.
In a way, that feels more like we’re peering into the lives of a liberal Saudi family navigating their way through a society that’s on the cusp of modernisation. And less like a polemic parable of one woman’s fight against the systems that seek to keep her bated – though this is arguably one of the film’s central messages.
Another core message is sisterhood, specifically the idea of cultivating the sisterhood – something that Al Mansour talks a lot about. When Maryam enlists the help of her two younger sisters, Selma and Sara, for her campaign both are initially surprised and dismissive.
They had to grow up with societal backlash of coming from a family of musicians and understand that Maryam’s candidacy will rile up similar reactions from the local community – having a father who was poet and performer himself, Al Mansour perhaps knows the reality of this all too well. But Maryam is stubborn and resolved.
Her indomitable desire to be taken seriously as a woman is infectious, and her sister Selma soon becomes her biggest champion. Working together, they steadily garner support (even in the unlikeliest of places) and show the women in their community that individually and collectively, they have the power to make real change happen.
Al Mansour tells the story simply. There are no editing or camera frills. That’s not to say you won’t find any visually powerful moments on screen, like Maryam’s speech to the disparaging men in the tent that goes viral and proves to her father she’s every bit the “lion” in public as she is at home.
Or the weddings, parties and music that balance those raw moments with flair and richness that are true to Saudi culture (most of the cast were non-professional actors so that no doubt helped). Al Mansour dashes in some humour for good measure too – which is important when you’re dealing with big themes like gender inequality and liberation.
There’s a brilliant scene in the kitchen when Maryam asks Selma to borrow her money for a ticket to an important doctor’s conference in Riyadh. Selma (a breakout role for Instagram comedian Dae Al Hilali) agrees to pay for it and jokingly caveats “I’m not an Islamic bank, I charge interest”. Maybe Al Mansour’s no-frills storytelling allows you to appreciate moments like this.
But it’s far from a simple story. There are layers and nuances that Al Mansour doesn’t offer a full explanation for because that’s not what she wants to do with her films. She doesn’t want to explain why a character acted in such a way or why the culture is like this (or apologise for it either). And she shouldn’t have to.
This film is an inwards discovery for the people it’s about, just as much as it’s for the people it isn’t about. Yes, the laws and culture and sexism all contribute to gender inequality but it’s also inaction. The people around Maryam might have believed in what she was doing, but what she really needed from them was actionable support.
Sure, at times the writing and plot developments ask you to suspend disbelief and accept events happening more conveniently than normal (most films arguably do). But it’s forgivable and doesn’t get in the way of the film being audacious, informing and enjoyable.
It’s a laudable homecoming for Al Mansour and whilst it doesn’t hit all the notes (or more) in the way Wadjda did, The Perfect Candidate stands firmly on its own and gives you more than you might be expecting it to.