The world is changing. Of course, each day brings changes, some small, some momentous. But for women in Saudi Arabia, changes are happening rapidly. In Haifaa Al Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate we see a woman who almost by accident finds herself in a role that not only pushes society’s boundaries—and her own.
Maryam is a doctor in a small regional hospital. She is conservative, especially in her dress. She covers her face whenever she is in the presence of men. The hospital where she works is essentially inaccessible, except through deep mud. She has complained to the municipal councilor, but it is always put off until next year. When she tries to go to a medical conference, she discovers that her travel papers have expired. When she tries to get them renewed, the official she goes to is only seeing applicants for the municipal election. So she fills out the form and ends up a candidate.
She begins to see this as an opportunity to push to get the road fixed. That serves as her campaign issue. But little by little, her gender becomes more of an issues. When she meets with women, they are hesitant to vote for her—or even to vote. Men are more dismissive. In her role as a doctor, there is a man who refuses to let him treat her, even though there is no other doctor. In time, her incumbent opponent repairs the road, taking away her issue, but by then she has come to see the election more about women’s voices, and especially her voice.
Al Mansour began looking at the changing role of women with her film Wadjda, about a young Saudi girl who wants a bike. In the years since that film, women in Saudi Arabia have made some advances. For example, they can now drive. But just because things have advanced doesn’t mean it is easy. We watch as Maryam slowly transforms. In her first campaign video, she is completely covered. He first real shift is when she takes off her face covering before appearing on TV. Little by little, she begins to go against the more strict societal expectations. It is not so much a matter of protesting the norms as it is finding her own freedom.
There is also a side plot dealing with Maryam’s father, who is a musician. Until recently music performances were forbidden. Yet he has continued his craft through this time. Now he is able to perform openly. This is yet another bit of change that some struggle with in that society. But her parents’ artistry was as much a push against the norms as Maryam’s political campaign.
Western audiences should not view this merely as a look at a culture that we view as in need of modernization (or Westernization). This is a story about facing change. Cultures are often strong currents that move against any advancement. That is as true for us as well. All those changes that happen each day may be welcomed in our lives, or we may fight against them. But often even the changes we never really look for can bring the most important advancements in our lives.
The Perfect Candidate is available in theaters.
Photos courtesy of Match Box Films.