By Ali Moosavi.
Though a simple story, The Perfect Candidate is a quiet gem that explores a number of deep-rooted issues regarding the rights of women in conservative societies, how women are viewed by men in these cultures, and the role of music and media in providing both joy and entertainment.”
In 2012 Haifaa Al-Mansour made history. She became the first female Saudi filmmaker. Not only that, her debut film Wadjda was a huge success, both with audiences and critics. It was a multi award winner at Venice Film Festival, was nominated for a BAFTA in the Best Film not in the English Language category and won a multitude of awards from film festivals and critics associations all over the world. The Saudi film industry was at its infancy then and she moved to the States to further her career in cinema. While there, she made the historical drama Mary Shelly (2017), the romantic comedy Nappily Ever After (2018) and episodes of various TV series. Though her films in the States were technically proficient they did not have the pathos and impact of Wadjda.
In 2019 Al-Mansoor made a welcome return to Saudi Arabia to make The Perfect Candidate. The first thing that one notices in her latest film is the changes that have been made in Saudi laws with regards to women’s rights since Wadjda. Al-Mansour starts her film by showing the woman protagonist Dr. Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) driving to the clinic where she works. When Wadjda was made, women were not allowed to drive. Dr. Maryam is a very frustrated woman. The section of the road leading to her clinic resembles a mudslide. Ambulances coming to the clinic have to park nearby and bring the emergency patients on stretchers by walking through the muddy ground. Maryam’s calls to the local councilor responsible for her district only receive empty promises.
Though a highly qualified and proficient doctor, Maryam has to deal with obstacles and problems not normally faced by female doctors in western societies. An old man refuses to be examined by a female doctor and tells Maryam to get out of the room. Meanwhile, Maryam convinces her boss to allow her to attend a medical seminar in Dubai. However, when she attempts to check in, she is told that she needs written permission from her husband or her father. (This rule has also recently been rescinded in Saudi Arabia). Maryam is single and her father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), a musician playing the Arabic instrument Oud, has just started a nationwide tour with his band and is unavailable. The airline check-in attendant tells her that he will allow her in a later flight if she can bring the permission letter. In desperation, Maryam goes to a government official who used to take Oud lessons from his father. The official says that he is busy enrolling candidates for council elections and can’t do anything else. In a moment of inspiration, Maryam decides to register her name as a candidate.
Here Haifaa Al-Mansour and her writing partner Brad Niemann have added background details for Maryam to justify her willingness to enter politics in one of the most conservative and paternal societies in the world and not be afraid to face all the inevitable obstacles that she would face in her mission. We learn that her late mother as a wedding singer who never allowed the pressure and disdain of society make her crumble and not pursue her dream. Maryam has inherited her genes and stands up to any pressure and ridicule from men and has no fear in trampling over all the unwritten rules regarding women’s rights. For example, she has to address men who have attended one of her election rallies from a nearby tent and not be physically visible to them. However, when the microphone cable becomes disconnected, she faces the men in person and delivers her speech. The son of the old man who refused to be examined by her becomes Maryam’s campaign manager.
The Perfect Candidate deftly mixes poignant moments, such as a heart-to-heart talk between Maryam and her father, with lighter moments such as the election video Maryam makes, which is both funny and touching. In parallel with Maryam’s struggles, we see problems of a different nature faced by her father. In some very conservative circles in Saudi Arabia, music is considered anti-Islamic and there are threats against Abdulaziz’s life and the tour comes close to being cancelled. But Abdulaziz and the tour organizes prevail and we can see the unbridled joy in the audience attending the concerts who sing and dance with the music.
Though a simple story, The Perfect Candidate is a quiet gem that explores a number of deep-rooted issues regarding the rights of women in conservative societies, how women are viewed by men in these cultures, and the role of music and media in providing both joy and entertainment and also break down the invisible barriers of bigotry. Hopefully films like this will go some way to enlighten audiences and bring about real and sustained change.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran(Intellect, 2015).