Since Wadjda, the first feature film to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, Haifaa al-Mansour’s creativity has been intertwined with a need to be assertive in her aggressively patriarchal society. In Mary Shelley al-Mansour was inspired by an artist who also had to defy expectations with her work and now, her latest film The Perfect Candidate follows a similar feminist fight.
Returning once again to Saudi Arabia, the story follows Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a doctor whose professional journey is being hindered, both literally and metaphorically. The road leading to her emergency clinic is in desperate need of paving, leaving doctors and patients to struggle through the mud. When she does make it to work, having changed out of her ruined abaya and shoes, she faces misogynistic superiors who look down on her, and male patients who refuse to be treated by her.
Determined to get out, Maryam books herself into a medical conference in Riyadh, where she hopes to prove herself and get a job interview at a new hospital. But, when she is told her travel permit is expired, she is given just a few hours to renew it. With her father out of town, she approaches a male relative in office, and to get through the door she half-heartedly signs up as an electoral candidate. When he tells her he can’t help without her father present (Saudi Arabia, sigh), she’s left disheartened, but with an opportunity to enact change herself.
Learning from entertaining YouTube videos and step-by-step guides on the internet, she begins her campaign with the help of her sister, a wedding photographer (Dae Al-Halili). Not unlike Al-Mansour’s previous heroine Shelley, Maryam is driven by the legacy of her mother to be free-spirited, independent and take on the establishment.
Though Maryam’s main campaign promise is fixing that road, this small scale story is inspiring nonetheless. The script is straight to the point, and as is often the case when translating Arabic, some of the emotion struggles to shine through the subtitles, but this story represents so much more. It is the product of a new generation of Muslim women like its director-producer-screenwriter who are finding their voices and fighting for what they believe in.
As Maryam drives off into a sea of monochromatic vehicles in her shiny blue car, there’s a triumph and determination that makes you sure she’ll do much more yet, and I anticipate even better from Haifaa al-Mansour to come.
by Fatima Sheriff
Fatima is a third-year Biomed at the University of Sheffield. For insight into her personality, her favourite films are: Bright Star, Paddington 2, Taare Zameen Par and Pride & Prejudice and in 2017 she listened mostly to the Hidden Figures soundtrack. She loves TV shows with original concepts, witty writing, and diverse casting. Examples include Legion, Gravity Falls, and Sense 8. Her Twitter and TVShowTime are both @lafatimayette.