The Perfect Candidate is a hopeful tale on a young female doctor who runs for public office in a country where women are not even considered legal persons.
all photos courtesy of Venice Film Festival
In 2012 Haifaa al-Mansour’s first feature Wadjda (and first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia) premiered at the Venice film festival and began with a rebellious 10-year-old Saudi girl driving a bicycle. Similarly, The Perfect Candidate – Al-Mansour’s return to her homeland after shooting English-language Mary Shelley and Nappily Ever After– opens with its protagonist Maryam (played by Mila Al Zahrani) confidently driving a car to reach the under-resourced clinic where she works as a doctor. This may seem like an ordinary choice on al-Mansour’s part, but in Saudi Arabia the ban on women drivers was lifted by King Salman only last year.
The driving ban is only a facet of Saudi Arabia strict gender segregation, which Al-Mansour manages to show us within the limits of her country’s censorship: women are forbidden to have any contact with stranger men as well as to enter some public spaces through the same doors as men on the premise of the legal notion of “shielding from corruption.” At the same time, women’s alleged “lack of capacity” is the reason why each woman is assigned a guardian to grant her any type of permission from travelling to undergoing medical procedures. This is also the reason why Saudi women could not vote or run for office in the country’s first municipal elections until 2015.
The right to vote and the reluctance and fear that comes with embracing such a big change is what Al-Mansour has decided to tackle in her courageous feature.
Maryam is a young, determined doctor who finds herself requesting candidacy at the next municipal elections when she cannot attend a medical conference in Dubai because of her expired travel permit (and the momentary lack of her male guardian to renew it). Maryam has one main goal to achieve: paving the dirt road that prevents patients to reach her clinic without having to walk in the thick mud. With the help of her sister Selma, a wedding photographer, Maryam organises (all female) events to fundraise and support her campaign, which prove successful but useless, as most women are not allowed to vote by their guardians. But Maryam never gives up, not even when her little sister Sara tells her that she will bring shame onto the family, or when she has to address a small audience of male voters through a screen because she cannot be in the same tent with them.
Maryam eventually loses the election. Still, the message of the film does not lie in the election outcome, but rather in the way Maryam overcomes each challenge with unfaltering determination, such as when an old patience refuses to be treated by her because of her gender – “Don’t look at me!” “Don’t touch me!”– and when she is interviewed on TV without a niqab covering her face. When facing the prejudice of the interviewer who keeps asking her about issues that according to him must be of interest to female voters (“like gardens”), Maryam firmly replies that everyone will benefit from her election, not just women. Here, she might be embodying al-Mansour herself, who shows us that life in Saudi Arabia can be hard for everyone, as in the film male musicians are threatened by religious fundamentalists, for instance.
Al-Mansour also explores how often women are too scared (and for obvious reasons) to accept newly acquired liberties, such as the right to vote. She employs film as a tool for change exactly in this regard, to show Saudi women, but also women everywhere, that it is not wrong to lose and that we have to fight for roles that we deserve, even though others might not want us to.
While for shooting Wadjda al-Mansour had to talk to her team via walkie-talkie while hidden in a van because she was not allowed be in the streets, the wave of reforms that are currently shaking the Saudi government (after a 35-year ban on movies theatres) allowed al-Mansour to shoot The Perfect Candidate with more freedom. The film lifts a curtain over the repressive culture that dominates Saudi Arabia, and it does so in a sometimes simplistic, yet hopeful way – considering that Saudi censors had to read the script and approve it first. What the censors might have seen as a progressive and acceptable story appears to us as a jarring reality. Misogyny is not just an explicit enemy that the protagonist has to face in the movie, but it is also a more subtle background element, an element that marks her everyday life, disturbing right because considered normal.
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