The Perfect Candidate
Continuing on our journey of enlightenment we came across this gem of a film from Saudi Arabia of all places, also on Curzon Home Cinema. Intrigued by the notion of a woman director being allowed to make a film in Saudi, I was enthralled from the opening scene. We see a woman driving a car – something that has only recently been allowed under the new loosening of the reins by the Crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman. This is at odds with the more authoritarian side evidenced by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the continuing injustices especially in relation to gender imbalance, as we will see. It’s important to understand the context of the film.
This is Haifaa al-Mansour’s second film, following on from her acclaimed Wadjda, a film about a 12-year-old Saudi girl entering a competition – of Koran reading – to win a bike. She is no stranger to the contradictions of day-today life in Saudi. Here Maryam (Mila al-Zahrani) is a young doctor working in a clinic. We see her arriving for work in full hijab and niqab, wading through mud. A severely injured elderly man is rushed in with great difficulty, because of the waterlogged access, but will not allow himself to be touched by her, demanding a male doctor; her (male) colleague looks on and doesn’t raise an eyebrow.
Doctor Maryam lives at home with her widowed father (Khalid Abdulraheem)and two sisters, Selma (Dae al-Hilali) and Sara (Nora al-Awadh); their mother, a wedding singer, has died recently and their father is still grief-stricken. Taking advantage of his departure on tour with his band to perform erotic love-songs, watched ecstatically by crowds of men, Maryam tries to attend a prestigious conference in Dubai to further her career. But her father has forgotten to sign her travel permit and she is unable to travel.
Resigned, rather than furious as any western woman would be – she knows the system – as a last resort she visits her cousin who might be able to help. The only way she can get to see him, in a nod to the new ‘equality’, is to commit to stand for the municipal council.
Having failed to persuade her cousin – Saudi men do not do women favours even if they are related – she returns home disappointed and upset. Then a lightbulb moment – why notcampaign for election on a single issue: to repair the road to her clinic. It is not gender-specific and would benefit the whole community.
The film follows her attempts to win support from the local community: with the support of Selma, following in the family footsteps and a wedding orgniser, and a disapproving Sara, she begins a media campaign and to host events. Her mother’s legacy provides her with useful tools – her voice and confidence in front of audiences – to bridge the gap between traditional and modern womanhood. But will it be enough? On paper, she is the perfect candidate, except for one thing – she is female.
As far as the women are concerned the response is predictable – ‘my husband would never let me vote’; as for the men, how do you even communicate with them when you are not allowed to have a face-to-face meeting, just a virtual presence. The irony of men being able to waft between the two worlds is not lost: Saudi life is truly full of contradictions and blood-boiling disparity.
Aside from the riveting subject-matter – that of a woman struggling against all the odds – al-Mansour provides a fascinating glimpse into life in modern Saudi. Such insights are rare and scintillating for that reason. The royal family pay lip-service to change – such as allowing women to become doctors, drive cars, campaign for political office, and even to make movies, but deep-down one wonders how much, if anything, has really changed? Men still rule the roost and women continue to lead segregated lives, the outdoor veil removed to reveal high fashion as they party with themselves. This is a beautifully observed and unsettling film recording the conflict between ancient traditions and modern culture.