A blue sedan makes its way through the streets of a Saudi Arabian village before turning down a dirt track towards a community hospital. What first appears to be a relatively inconsequential start to a film takes on a special significance, however, once you come to understand the woman behind the wheel. For starters, Saudi women have only been able to legally drive since 2018. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) is no ordinary woman though, starring as the protagonist of The Perfect Candidate, the most recent foray into the film world bySaudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda, Mary Shelley).
Maryam is an accomplished doctor who, despite her proven ability, must fight against the constructs of a male-dominated profession on a daily basis. This gender disparity is by no means unique to the workplaces of Saudi Arabia, but change is slower, and the limitations placed on women are harder to ignore. It also doesn’t help her case that her widowed father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem) is a musician, a profession still frowned upon by some in their community and considered anti-Islamic by conservative groups.
Thankfully, Maryam’s ambition remains unhindered, though she is regularly undermined by her colleagues and questioned by her patients in a way that makes her resilience all the more remarkable. “People can’t succeed if their chief is a woman” is a blow that would shake most, but it barely makes her bat an eye. It’s hard not to hold your breath during these tense interactions, particularly when her comebacks are as quick and articulate as you’d expect them to be. She definitely doesn’t pull any punches and fear doesn’t seem to enter her vocabulary.
It is Maryam’s courage and determination to succeed that leads her to the airport, ready to board a plane to a conference in Dubai with hopes of gaining a position at a hospital in Riyadh. She might be young, but that only serves to fuel her bravery, and when she notices an influential speaker from the conference in the check-in line next to her, she wastes no time introducing herself and expressing her interest in the role. If you want something, you have to fight for it, and it’s obvious from the very beginning of the film that Maryam is not one to let an opportunity pass her by.
It’s frustrating to watch then as, despite her fiercely independent personality and impressive qualifications, she continues to be bound by a fundamentally patriarchal society. When she is unable to get the permission she needs to travel as her father is away on tour, another unexpected opportunity presents itself in the form of a municipal council election. There are some who are said to have greatness thrust upon them, but there are also people like Maryam who grab it with both hands, motivated by the chance to make a difference rather than any kind of self-serving power.
There are some who are said to have greatness thrust upon them, but there are also people like Maryam who grab it with both hands, motivated by the chance to make a difference rather than any kind of self-serving power.
These are the moments where the greatest influence of Al-Mansour’s own experience on her creation of Maryam’s character is seen. Both are among the first women in their field, both are considered controversial and outspoken for defying prevailing social norms, and both must contend with a desire to prove themselves irrespective of their gender. As the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film, Al-Mansour (who completed a Master’s degree in directing and film studies at the University of Sydney) is perfectly positioned to highlight the residual hesitancy that clouds the newfound freedom of women in her country.
As Maryam begins her election campaign with gusto, she is faced with that all too familiar resistance, and as with every time she has encountered it before, she has to find a way to work around it. Giving up is simply not an option. The ease with which she connects with the women of her community should be an advantage over her opposing candidate, but when many are prevented from voting or choose not to out of fear or uncertainty, she realises that there is a long way to go in achieving any semblance of equality.
The Perfect Candidate is a story of the power of small wins. What started as a campaign to fix the dirt road in front of her clinic quickly becomes something much more for Maryam. It fuels a desire to pave the way for women to use their recently acquired freedoms to promote positive change and recognise their potential. Maryam’s goal is to disrupt rather than to destroy, and she retains a deep respect for the culture that has shaped the identity of her community throughout, even if at times it is the reason she has to work that bit harder to get where she wants to go. Her persistence does pay off, and the unexpected affirmations she receives along the way, however small, are proof that things are moving in the right direction.
There is an undeniable idealism to the film that doesn’t at all diminish its message, but is important to recognise. The challenges Maryam faces are real, but only scratch the surface of the experiences of women in these circumstances. That being said, telling these stories of hope and opportunity can only be a good thing, if only to remind us that change is possible, when the right people take a stand.
The Perfect Candidate is now streaming at SBS On Demand.