Haifaa al-Mansour came to international attention with her 2012 film Wadjda, about an 11-year-old Saudi girl who is determined to get a bicycle, despite the disapproval of elders who are sure that riding a bike will destroy her virginity or her ability to have children or something like that. Or, more likely, that it will prove to her what she already knows instinctively—that she’s just as good, if not better, than the boys in the town, and that the many restrictions imposed on girls and women in Saudi society are less about protecting them and more about protecting boys from having to compete with them.
Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), the central character in The Perfect Candidate, is an adult but still fighting the same battles, this time with higher stakes. She’s a physician working at a local medical clinic, and is fiercely determined to do the best by her patients, no matter how resistant they may be. This is demonstrated, perhaps a little too didactically, when she saves the life of an elderly man whose ailment had been misdiagnosed by a male practitioner, but who only allows Maryam to touch him after he has been anesthetized.
The road leading to the clinic is unpaved and frequently becomes a muddy mess, to the point where patient transportation to the hospital is impaired. Paving that road becomes the central campaign issue when Maryam decides to run for municipal council, a path she originally embarked upon because pretending to be a candidate was the only way she could see the government official who could renew her travel permit. And here’s where a little knowledge of Saudi history comes in handy: until 2019, Saudi women needed the permission of a male guardian to travel abroad. In Maryam’s case, her father overlooked the need to renew her permit, and is currently away touring with his band, so she’s unable to attend a foreign medical convention.
Maryam’s family is scandalized by her decision to run for office, and she must deal with all sorts of obstacles, from the requirement that she cover her face during campaign videos to the amused disbelief of journalists interviewing her about her campaign (one is sure that, as a woman, her campaign must be centered on properly female interest like gardening). Maryam is not entirely sure what she’s doing at first, but improvises and learns and gradually finds her voice along with an ability to inspire others. Her particular gift is connecting the personal and the political, a familiar theme taken by female candidates (and women in many other fields as well—it was a cornerstone of second-wave feminism, for instance). Speaking to an all-female group at a wedding, she presents the need to pave the road as potentially saving the life of one of their children, who might otherwise perish if the car got stuck in the mud and care was thus delayed.
The Perfect Candidate is a simple story, reminiscent of a fable, but it comes alive through the inspired acting of Al Zahrani and her supporting cast, including Dae al-Hilali and Nora al-Awadh as her sisters and Khalid Abdulraheem as their widowed father. In fact, the whole film is teeming with life, and al-Mansour balances the restrictions Maryam must daily face with vivid portrayals of the joys of sisterhood and the dynamics of all-female gatherings necessary in a country in which segregation by sex is still the norm. | Sarah Boslaugh