A little over a year after it became legal for women to drive in Saudi Arabia, to open a Saudi Arabian film with the image of a woman behind the wheel feels like a triumph. This is just how director Haifaa al-Mansour opens The Perfect Candidate: with Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a young doctor, driving to her job at the clinic. But her gender still affects other aspects of her life; when an older man is brought to the clinic where she works, he refuses to be treated by her because she’s a woman.
Frustrated by the council’s inaction over fixing the flooded road to the hospital, and after an expired travel permit – and the inability to renew it due to the existential nightmare of bureaucracy – stops her from attending a career-advancing conference in Dubai, Maryam decides instead to run for office in the local council elections. With her father absent, she turns to her two sisters Sara and Selma (Nora Al Awadh and Dae Al Hilali) for help, and they set about trying to convince their considerably less liberal friends and neighbours to vote for a woman.
It seems bizarre that the only way to fix the road outside the hospital is to run for council, or that Maryam isn’t allowed to address potential male voters in person, and the film uses this to lightly critique outdated rules and regulations that make it difficult for a 21st-century Saudi woman to succeed outside of the home.
Maryam doesn’t want to change the whole political system, she just wants to be able to do her job as a doctor properly, and The Perfect Candidate cleverly highlights the lengths she has to go to be listened to and respected, and how far equality for women still has to come in her country.
CAST: Mila Al Zahrani, Nora Al Awadh, Dae Al Hilali
DIRECTOR: Haifaa al-Mansour
WRITER: Haifaa al-Mansour
SYNOPSIS: A female Saudi doctor challenges the patriarchal system by running as a candidate in the municipal council elections.