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With oil no longer at the premium it was, and Saudi Arabia’s government reportedly compelled to make concessions to western-style novelties such as feminism, we have seen something of an opening up. In the movies, that has given us the work of Haifaa al-Mansour, the first woman to make a Saudi Arabian feature film with her widely admired 2012 debut, Wadjda, about a 10-year-old girl who enters a Koran-reading competition so she can buy a bike with the cash prize.
Now al-Mansour has directed and co-written this assured and watchable picture, which premiered last year in Venice: a political drama about a woman who runs for office quasi-accidentally, in the time-honoured style, and then finds her campaign gaining an unexpected momentum. No one in this film actually calls her the “perfect” candidate; an alternative title would have been just “The Candidate”, like Robert Redford in Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film, who is allowed to take a shot at political power because the powers-that-be are confident he hasn’t got a hope.
Mila al-Zahrani plays Maryam, a young doctor in a Saudi Arabian hospital who is routinely patronised by her male supervisors: when a grumpy old man with an arm injury refuses to be examined by her, rebuffing her polite insistence and demanding a male doctor, Maryam’s colleague simply sides with the patient. At home, she lives with her sisters, Selma (Dae al-Hilali) and Sara (Nora al-Awadh), and they are all worried about their widowed dad, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), a much-respected musician who has not got over the death of his wife; she was a wedding singer whose beautiful voice haunts his memory.
Partly in denial about his emotional devastation, Abdulaziz goes on a national tour with his ensemble, and Maryam shrewdly takes advantage of his absence, attempting to fly abroad for a medical conference in Dubai where she can pitch for a prestigious new job. But her father has forgotten to sign off on her travel permit; the official who could rectify this happens to be her cousin, but his implacable secretary tells Maryam she can only get an appointment to see him on short notice if she wishes to stand for office as a local councillor – the authorities having decided to pay solemn lip service to female eligibility. In a mood of pure exasperation, Maryam signs up. And so al-Mansour gives her audience a fine lesson in some key ingredients of political life in Saudi or anywhere else: nepotism, cynicism, sexism and chaos.
That scene at the airport when Maryam is turned back (with no guarantee of any ticket refund) is a crystallising moment of patriarchal arrogance: there was a similar moment in Soheil Beiraghi’s film Permission (2018), based on the true story of an Iranian female footballer who couldn’t attend an international fixture because her husband wouldn’t give her permission to leave the country. To most western audiences, it is a staggering infantilisation and humiliation; to women in Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is a fact of life. Here is the triggering moment for change, albeit ironic and accidental.
Al-Mansour cleverly shows that Maryam’s family connections in the world of being a wedding singer have given her some crucial experience in public performance and addressing large assemblies of people, including men, in that rare context that permits the public acceptability of women. There is an interesting juxtaposition of scenes showing the audio channel for the microphone breaking down, and the difficulty involved in fixing it, if it means a woman invading a male space, or a man intruding on a female space. There is a colossal gender divide, whose purpose is always to make women inaudible and invisible.
As for Maryam herself, she shows a natural political shrewdness in making her stump speech all about fixing the damaged road outside her hospital – nothing to do with women’s rights. And so her political career takes off, leaving this film’s audience to ponder the outcome: is Maryam going to win, or lose in such a way as to Corbynishly “win the argument”? The second possibility depends on how explicitly she wants to risk making that argument. But then: she is the argument.
The Perfect Candidate is the sort of film I can imagine getting a remake in contemporary America or Britain, with not as many changes as we might assume.
• The Perfect Candidate is available on Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and Modern Films from 27 March.
Source: The Guardian
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