In 2012 Haifaa al-Mansour wrote and directed Wadja the first movie to be filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. During filming for Wadja, al-Mansour directed from a van as to not intermix with male members of her crew. With The Perfect Candidate, al-Mansour returns to Saudi Arabia, this time without the van, to focus on the evolving role of women in Saudi Arabian society.
The Perfect Candidate follows Maryam (Mila Alzahrani), a doctor and daughter of a musician. As a woman, Maryam is limited in her abilities at work as some men refuse her care. Yet, Maryam does not easily back down because she knows she is the most qualified doctor, and in fact the only doctor, to care for her community. A major challenge for Maryam’s clinic is the flooded road leading up to it, which endangers her patients. Unfortunately, Maryam’s efforts to get the city council to fix the road are fruitless. When Maryam, by chance, signs up to run for city council, she views it as an opportunity to finally pave the road. Throughout her campaign, Maryam realizes that her gender, not the road, is what really will take center stage.
Maryam’s father and two sisters are not thrilled by Maryam’s campaign as they fear the gossip that will ensue. Yet, her sisters help her organize campaign events where she can speak to members of the community about her values. It’s at these events where we really notice the differences between public and private life for women. In public, Maryam covers her face with a niqab and wears all black, but in women-only spaces, she and her sisters dress fashionably and are able to speak freely. The other women of the town also enjoy more freedom at these private events but they are unsure of Maryam as a candidate. They are not easily convinced by her attempt to advance the role of women in Saudi Arabia and often fear the response of their fathers and husbands. Maryam only becomes more vocal and visible to the public throughout her campaign. She sees her running for city council as a statement for men to take women seriously and for women to seek more public roles.
Though Maryam is pushing her community and family out of their comfort zone, a strength of her character is that she is so approachable. Maryam is not a brash revolutionary who separates herself from the masses in order to make a statement. In fact, her platform as a candidate is solely to fix the road to the clinic, a small, but important agenda for her and her city. She behaves outside the normal expectations of women through everyday interactions and with the purpose of helping others.
The Perfect Candidate really gains heart from Maryam’s family and the dynamic between their love and support for each other, which is challenged by their fear of societal pressures. Maryam pushes her family to accept becoming the talk of their city in order to support her speaking out for what’s right. Though none of her family members are thrilled about her campaign, Maryam’s actions are not much different from her father’s. He, a musician, embarks on a tour not long after the ban on public performances is lifted. Clearly, changes in Saudi Arabian society do not fall solely on women. The Perfect Candidate encourages and amplifies a transition in Saudi Arabia culture where women strive to have a voice in their community and are supported by their peers. For international audiences, it is an opportunity to view this shift in a country, which is so rarely covered in the media.
The Perfect Candidate is available exclusively in theaters on May 14.