Haifaa al-Mansour was the first Saudi woman to direct a feature film, landing out of the blue at the 2012 Venice film festival with her coming-of-age drama Wadjda. Mansour’s achievement was noteworthy in itself, but Wadjda turned out to be more than some dry historical milestone. It was rousing, galvanic, a big-hearted rebel yell about an 11-year-old girl who defies the elders in her efforts to buy a bicycle so she can race against boys. Just recalling that film is enough to make me well up.

Now, after a brace of English-language misadventures, Mansour is back on home soil, and decidedly back to core principles in that her new film delivers another salute to the indomitable female spirit, to the point where it might just as easily have been called Wadjda 2: This Time She’s a Doctor. The Perfect Candidate is fiery and headstrong, and instantly gets you on its side. The formula works wonders on the second time of asking.

The Perfect Candidate



Underlying hope … The Perfect Candidate. Photograph: Razor Film

Mila Al Zahrani plays Dr Maryam, an overworked medic at an under-resourced clinic, who decides to run for a seat on the municipal council. Never mind the fact that she isn’t supposed to show her face in her campaign videos, or directly address the male voters at a rally in a tent, the doc is made of stern stuff and will not be dissuaded. Her dad is deflated, her little sister scandalised, but Maryam goes viral. She is seen as a novelty act. On the local TV news, the presenter kindly suggests she must be campaigning on issues that expressly interest women. “Like gardens, for instance. You must like gardens.”

Actually, Maryam could take or leave gardens. What she really wants is to pave the dirt road that leads to her clinic. It has a tendency to turn to mud when it rains, which means her patients can’t reach her. And as her campaign gains traction, “madame candidate” grows in stature. She wins over some doubters and shouts down some others. “I finally feel like I’m someone,” she says.

No prizes for guessing where Mansour’s film goes from here, because The Perfect Candidate is a simple story, told without frills or even much in the way of nuance. But it’s socked through with great power, conviction and an underlying hope for a better world. The Saudi Arabia it shows us is a place where modernity rubs up against entrenched conservatism, and where even the most decadent Barbie Princess-inspired wedding still features a singer who croons, “There is no God but Allah.” The Kingdom’s a mess, it doesn’t make sense. You can’t even drive your sick child to the clinic. But all is not lost because change is in the air. The Perfect Candidate suggests that all it might take is for one bright, bold individual to put their shoulder to the wheel for the direction of travel to be altered, if only by a degree. That someone may be Wadjda, or Maryam, or Mansour herself.



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