A few years ago, writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour made history with her Wadjda, a delightful tale of a little girl in Riyadh who really just desperately wants a bicycle. This was the first movie shot in Saudi Arabia, and Al-Mansour’s debut made her the first female Saudi filmmaker.
After a few cinematic detours into English-language, Western-set films, Al-Mansour returns home with The Perfect Candidate, about a young doctor, Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), who rather accidentally ends up running for her local Riyadh municipal council. As with Wadjda, the barriers and the opposition that Maryam encounters on her journey are not that different from what women in ostensibly more free, more feminist nations have to cope with whenever we dare to challenge perceived notions about what we’re “supposed” to be doing with our lives. And her determination to overcome them is similarly heartening, inspiring, and familiar.
The dramatic shenanigans that set Maryam on the path to politics are of a particularly Saudi sort, involving her expired travel permit. You know, her travel permit. The document that lets the Powers That Be know that her male guardian has granted her permission to move around outside her home. (Reminder: Maryam is an adult human being.) Al-Mansour, who cowrote the script with Brad Niemann, doesn’t play this as comedy, but there is a resigned exasperation, a gentle unspoken “Can you believe the shit I have to put up with?” to how Maryam attempts to resolve this immediate problem, which requires buttering up men while also making herself appear as humble and nonthreatening as possible.
Which is ironic, because now, as a candidate for political office, she is suddenly a huge threat to the status quo. (Ah, see, the only way she could get in to see the male relative who might fix her travel-permit issue is by signing up to run for the local council — that’s the only business he is dealing with on this day. So she signs up. I told you: Shenanigans!) Maryam isn’t really interested in politics, but then she realizes that, hey, if she’s on the local council, she might be able to get the damn road outside her hospital paved, cuz right now it’s a muddy mess all the time, and a real nightmare to navigate.
The more Maryam delves into this new task, the more she authentically warms to it, finding her courage and finding herself even more frustrated than usual by the limitations and restrictions placed upon her. Some of them seem extreme, even grimly ironic, to Western eyes: the campaign video her wedding-videographer sister (Dae Al Hilali) helps her make has her appearing onscreen fully covered, face and even eyes, in black abaya and niqab, so totally unlike the smiling faces we’re used to seeing in election ads. But when she appears on breakfast TV to talk about her campaign, the male host is precisely as condescending as Western men often are in his presumption that she is only interested in promoting “women’s” concerns.
We are reminded, too, that men are just as much prisoners of their culture as women are, if often it seems they have more leeway: Maryam’s charming but scatterbrained father (Khalid Abdulraheem) may be completely supportive of everything his daughters want to do, but that doesn’t help anyone when he neglects to keep up on travel-permit regs on their behalf. (Side note: Her dad is a traditional musician, and so there’s lots of great music in this movie.)
Again, as with Wadjda, The Perfect Candidate is another peek inside a sometimes secretive society that, it turns out, isn’t so different from our own. That even comes down to the fairly clichéd path Maryam’s underdog story takes, one of baby steps and small victories wherein changing even a single mind is worthy of celebrating. And yet, we are still not at a place where we can comfortably stop reminding people that women are smart, dedicated, ambitious, and appreciate being heard when we speak and taken seriously for our ideas. No matter where we are on the planet.