Director Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first woman in Saudi Arabia to direct a feature film, has become a controversial figure in her home country, bringing issues of film censorship and women’s rights into public discussion. A widely acclaimed, award-winning director and screenwriter, she is well known for the 2005 documentary Women Without Shadows, which deals with the role of women in Saudi society; followed by a feature-length drama, Saudi/European collaboration, Wadjda — the first feature film ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first film submitted by Saudi Arabia for Oscar consideration — which also raised questions about the lives of Saudi girls and women. The director then went west to make the 2017 biographical drama Mary Shelley.
This year, Al-Mansour returns to the setting of Saudi Arabia with The Perfect Candidate, to explore the struggles and disadvantages experienced by Saudi women, through the eyes of one woman: small-town doctor Sara (Nora Al Awadh in her film debut). Having a medical degree and a position as physician at the local hospital does not free Sara from the limitations placed on women: in the opening scene, she is refused passage on an airline while on her way to a medical conference. Women in Saudi Arabia were required to have permission to travel from a male guardian, and Sara’s father had forgotten to renew her paperwork. The absurdity of a doctor requiring parental permission to travel is allowed to speak for itself, and Sara’s anger and embarrassment are obvious but understated; she is familiar with the system she lives under.
Sara does not set out to enter politics. Through a series of bureaucratic missteps while trying to reinstate her travel papers, she ends up registered to run for municipal council, resolving to simply forget about the registration and allow it to lapse. When she returns to her clinic, and observes the familiar difficulties endured by patients making their way to the site, she changes her mind. Spurred on by resentment over her recent travel ordeal, Sara decides to go ahead with her candidacy, making accessibility to the local hospital her key policy. Suddenly she is immersed not only in the unfamiliar world of political campaigning, but in the intricate, precarious, and often absurd process of making herself acceptable as a rare female candidate. The rules regulating the actions of Saudi women are presented with minimal commentary, allowing the viewer to share Sara’s frustration as she tries to find her way through the labyrinth of regulations, both official and unspoken, that make campaigning for office an obstacle course for women. She is prevented from addressing men directly, and must speak to audiences via CCTV from a remote location, her face covered. The simpler process of campaigning to all-female groups is less than helpful: Saudi women may vote, but frequently don’t, or are discouraged from voting by their family. Men, on the other hand, comprise the majority of actual voters, but they range from dubious to plainly hostile at the idea of a female in office.
Part of the story involves Sara’s family, which director Al-Mansour has acknowledged were based on some of her own relations. Sara’s older sister is frankly pessimistic about Sara’s chances, but agrees to support and help as best she can — mainly by using her party planning skills to organise campaign events. The youngest sister is a mildly comic figure, a young girl raised by egalitarian parents, who enjoys her comparative freedom, but who sometimes adopts fundamentalist Muslim attitudes and slogans as a kind of adolescent rebelliousness — a tricky thing to present as humour, much less as warmhearted family comedy, but the film manages it neatly. The youngest nevertheless pitches in, reserving the right to critique and sneer from time to time. Sara’s father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), meanwhile, is a musician on a national tour with his band. He hears that Sara is running for office, and wishes her the best, while his bandmates’ ambiguous support is played for laughs; but he is dealing with parallel problems of his own. Some Saudi fundamentalists object to popular music, and while Abdulaziz is resolutely optimistic about the band’s reception, even as he plays laughably small audiences in uninspiring venues, such as carnivals, there is an underlying concern about protests or acts of violence against their performances. While Sara’s efforts are the main focus, the point is made that Saudi Arabia’s problems are not limited to female equality. The film moves back and forth between the band’s progress as they travel, and Sara’s campaign.
At home, Sarah’s candidacy is receiving occasional complaints about “bold” women daring to run for office, and openly rude remarks during fundraisers. It is clear that Sara and her sister are both woefully naive and inexperienced in politics, their efforts a comedy of errors for the most part, but each setback only makes Sara more determined to succeed, and more resentful of the public reaction to her candidacy. She at last becomes openly indignant when interviewed by a casually dismissive television host, sheds the careful reserve she has maintained during campaign events, and challenges him. Sara even breaks with custom to appear before an all-male audience of voters to defend herself. As Sara’s absent father and his band set a hopeful tone by reaching new levels of success and popularity, Sara’s campaign slowly begins to gain ground.
The film’s conclusion is a positive but realistic one, an ironic kind of happy ending in which Sara’s campaign can be called both a failure and a success. Politics and pragmatism combine with good intentions to work out a surprising compromise, and Sara, wiser for the experience, accepts the qualified accomplishment. The final scene moves easily from politics to family concerns, as Sara’s father finally returns home, and reminiscences of her late mother reassure her that she has acted in a way that would have made her mother proud. It is this kind of universal experience — including, rather atypically for film, the power of family not to suppress but to support needed change — along with an easy sense of humour, that holds the film together. Sara is not merely a figure of defiance or an idealised champion, but an ordinary woman trying to make minor changes that will help her community, and frustrated by the barricades that keep her from her goal. The story is simple, but Sara and her family are easy to identify with, their troubles made understandable to an international audience through the medium of imperfect, often unwittingly funny, determined but unprepared people with universally shared aspirations. The filmmaker’s success comes from making The Perfect Candidate about the characters. Above all, Al-Mansour once commented in interview, “it’s a film about sisterhood.” It is not incidental that support and guidance from Sara’s sisters and female friends are central to the entire story.