For her debut drama, 2012’s ‘Wadjda’, Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour had to direct from the back of a van using walkie-talkies. Saudi Arabia’s sexist dictats have loosened a little since then, but as her new film shows, it’s still a pretty terrible place to be a woman – let alone a woman who wants to change things. In her new film, the agent of change is Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani), a doctor so frustrated by her stymied efforts to get the road outside the hospital repaired, she decides to run for office and do it herself. If you can’t beat them, unseat them.
While it’s never played for laughs, Al Mansour gleans plenty of mordant humour from this absurdist premise. Maryam deals with sexist men and disenfranchised women at every turn and it’s hard to know which is more dispiriting: the overbearing, smug men or the women who feel so powerless, the idea of voting for this upstart politician seems like a far-fetched fantasy. One rousing rally ends with a stream of women pledging to at least ask their husbands
if they can back her.
Al Zahrani is a TV star in her homeland but much of the cast comprises non-professional actors and that, combined with unfussy visuals lends a Dardenne-like immediacy that serves the story well. Its dramatic beats are relatively low-key, but make no mistake, ‘The Perfect Candidate’ is a quietly groundbreaking piece of work.