In 2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour made history as the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. Her film Wadjda blended the personal with the cultural by telling a girl’s story in the extremely patriarchal country. Almost a decade later, Al-Mansour continues to tell stories focusing on this blend, but rather than the school age Wadjda, her new film The Perfect Candidate focuses on a young professional woman’s struggle in a country slowly progressing with women’s rights.
Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) is the attending physician at her local clinic. She receives some resistance to her care from the more religiously orthodox members of her community, but she is largely appreciated as a local medical alternative to the hospital in the city miles away. When an issue with her travel permit prevents her from attending a medical conference, she is inadvertently thrust into a city council political campaign that tests how much her community truly respects her rather than simply placates her.
Maryam’s political campaign is a captivating subject for a film. While it was never her intention to run, once thrust into it she takes to the challenge immediately. She and her sisters put together political commercials, and she immediately identifies paving over the flooded dirt road in front of her clinic as her highest priority. This priority comes in contrast to what the men assume her campaign would focus on. The men see only her gender and assume she must be running on a platform of more progressive women’s issues. In this assumption, they betray their own understandings of the treatment they offer her and all women. This interplay is the film’s strength. It creates a nuanced and complex story about the needs of women living in Saudi Arabia and how men see the women around them.
The Perfect Candidate is a narrative that appears simple upon first blush, but it has layered cultural underpinnings providing significant depth. Haifaa Al-Mansour is already a proven name in world cinema, and her newest film proves she belongs in the modern canon.