Haifaa al-Mansour returns to Wadjda territory with an engaging story of an accidental local election contender…
Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour is best known from her striking 2012 feature debut Wadjda, the simple yet surprisingly powerful tale of a young girl who dreams of owning a bicycle, despite it being disapproved of in Saudi culture. In the meantime, there have been other films, Mary Shelley and Netfilx’s Nappily Ever After, and television work including The Society and Motherland: Fort Salem. She returns to her home country and familiar territory (some might say too familiar) for her fourth feature film The Perfect Candidate. The film screened at various festivals in 2019, including the London Film Festival and Venice Film Festival, where it was a nominee in Official Competition at both, and is to be released by Modern Films in the UK.
In The Perfect Candidate we find ambitious young doctor Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) passionate about her work and her patients at her hospital, and the state of the unpaved, muddy road in front of it, but equally eager to attend a conference in Dubai that could further her career and leave the sexist attitudes behind. But bad timing means her widower father (Khalid Abdulraheem) is away playing traditional music in his band on a national tour, just when she needs a male guardian to renew her travel visa. (Something only reformed shortly before the film debuted at Venice.) Attempting to call in help from a family friend at a local council, she’s told she needs to be an applicant in their local elections to see him.
When he can’t help and she finds herself stuck in her home town, she wonders if running for the role of councillor wouldn’t be such a bad idea. And though her sisters Selma (Dae Al Hilali) and Sara (Nora Al Awadh) are initially dismayed by her decision, they soon begin assisting her campaign. As the local community struggles with the idea of their first female candidate for local councillor, it looks like this race against her male rival might be closer than anyone expects.
As Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, al-Mansour struggled for years to get Wadjda off the ground, famously having to direct exterior shots in the back of the van so she wouldn’t be publicly seen mixing with them. In the seven years since there have been some sweeping reforms in Saudi Arabia to women’s rights, particularly in the last few years, as well as the loosening of rules around live music being played. But the film finds those reforms have some way to go, particularly in changing long-held attitudes. It’s obviously close to al-Mansour’s heart, especially as the film has been billed as the first supported by the relatively newly created Saudi Film Council.
As with Wadjda, we find a tightly-knit family unit of single parent and children. Perhaps al-Mansour’s greatest strength is portraying believable heart-warming human drama. Working from her own writing and experiences sit far more genuinely than her US/UK-based projects. In what could easily be considered an autobiographical nod, her father’s reaction is more supportive than irritated, having resigned himself to having formidable, self-possessed daughters. Dae Al Hilali specifically steals most of the scenes from Mila Al Zahrani as the more social media conscious Selma. In the years since al-Mansour’s ground-breaking debut, however, this sort of depiction of a family unit is no longer a novelty – take Mahmoud Sabbagh’s (albeit a male director) Amra and the Second Marriage, for instance – even though al-Mansour had such a big hand in creating Saudi Arabia’s film industry and opportunities for filmmakers.
There’s a softly-softly approach to portraying the outrage and inequality here. As with Wadjda, it works from the sense of not distancing the audience too far away from the film’s message, but somehow this feels less edgy, as if trying too hard not to offend anyone. There was great power in the simplicity of a girl wanting to ride a bike, yet the singular thrust of Maryam, to get the road to her hospital paved, feels too one-dimensional considering all the other problems she and other women face in everyday life.
Co-produced by Germany’s Razor Film Produktion, who also had a hand in Wadjda, the film is nicely shot by Toni Erdmann’s Patrick Orth, and Volker Bertelmann’s (Lion) score works well, if perhaps a little overly moody. Without a doubt, the real star is the traditional music from the band and singers at weddings. It’s obviously of great interest to the director, having shot the short The Wedding Singer’s Daughter just a year before. But the subplot about Maryam coming to terms with the death of her mother, and legacy of having inherited her vocal talent, together with the extended sequences following the band, threaten to derail the main narrative and pace. It feels like the filmmaker reconnecting with her culture, but maybe this isn’t the right place for it?
The Perfect Candidate is a solid film, well-written and acted, making for a thoroughly engaging film. It’s just not quite Wadjda.