The Perfect Candidate
The Perfect Candidate opens up with our lead driving a car, a scene only significant because this is the story of a female doctor, and she lives in Saudi Arabia.
In 2012, Haifaa al-Mansour became the first Saudi woman to ever direct a feature film, Wadjda, the simple lovely story of a 10 year old girl and her bike. Except to add to the pressure of being a pioneer and managing a production, Mansour was restricted by Saudi laws and norms and had to sit secluded in the back of a van giving direction through a walkie-talkie. The crew members were male, and though she was somehow their boss, she couldn’t be seen communicating that reality. Oh, I can’t even…
And driving? You might remember that until June 2018, this was the only country in the world that prohibited women driving.
Now things have changed to some small extent in Saudi Arabia, and The Perfect Candidate reflects that. Brave, sometimes professional, women (and to an extent men) have been making incremental progress for equality, but at what personal cost?
Saudi Arabia, today
Mansour gives us Maryam (a strong Mila Al Zahrani) a doctor in a rural clinic, who perhaps, in her heart, wants more out of her career, her life. In day to day terms, she is determined to make two practical things happen: to get the shabby access road to the clinic fixed and to attend a high-profile medical conference. However, in her world neither paving nor female travel can happen without governmental permission. So, clever Maryam feigns interest in running for the local council in order to get facetime with a government official and get the balls rolling.
Then she has a lightbulb moment – if she actually got involved, and took the crazy step of running for office, she might have an actual say in these events.
Not an easy task; even though she’s a doctor, she’s still a woman. She takes the leap, although she has no support from the people around her. A female, even in her position, might have expected puzzlement or worse from the men in her life, but aside from her older sister Selma (Dae Al Hilali), she’s on her own. Of course, Maryam doesn’t really care about this bogus election… until she does.
The Perfect Candidate is a showcase for change
Zahrani is fine with this edgy, sometimes bordering on unlikeable character, who we witness think, plan, and blossom. What would stun and anger us if we were in her shoes is just everyday interference to this smart cookie. The film does descend into big highs and villainous baddies, but Maryam becomes someone we are rooting for. Free of wearing the niqab, watching her interaction with fellow slightly unsure women in same-gender surroundings is meaningful. She is a woman of the modern world, shaking hands and making connections. Her journey is admirable – and shows that not all people that create change set out to do so.
This film isn’t perfect but it’s a great watch; hearing and believing in this all too relevant story will make you reconsider your own corner of the world.
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A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.