Maryam is a doctor in a Saudi hospital, the only one in town with emergency facilities. We first encounter her driving alone into work (only legal for Saudi women since 2018) and having a row with first a patient and then her boss after he refuses to be treated by a woman.
Maryam becomes an election candidate almost by accident (its the only way of getting past the secretary to talk to a male cousin who needs to sign a document to allow her to fly). She becomes a phenomenon, first via social media, than by appearing on an interview show and refusing to answer questions on “women‘s subjects” like gardens.
The film boldly does not have Maryam talk about everyday sexism, preferring to just show how it affects her life and campaign. She is unable to address male audiences, and the women that she speaks to are unsure whether they could vote for a candidate not chosen by their husband.
There is a scene of her musician father performing to a segregated audience consisting mainly of men in white robes and red headscarves, but with a sliver of women in black dresses on the edge. The silent depiction of colourful uniform is reminiscent of the tv adaptation of the Handmaid’s Tale.
Instead of banging on about sexism, Maryam concentrates her campaign on asphalting the road leading into her hospital. This is largely effective – showing that politics in Saudi Arabia are about much more than women’s oppression – but falters at one key point. For reasons of Plot, Maryam does indeed get to talk to room (half-)full of men, and tells them about the road that needs to be repaired. After this, she has nothing left to say.
This is very unlikely given the intelligent woman that we have experienced so far – strong, tough, a doctor with deep concern for her patients. She doesn’t have to call the men out for oppression, she can demand more hospital services, call for a minimum wage, anything. Her silence means that her campaign is reduced to one small issue, and the only point of this seems to be to facilitate a minor plot twist later in the film.
But don’t let this put you off. A film like this lives and dies with its actors, and as Maryam, Mila Al Zahrani is as intelligent and as feisty as the character needs to be. Maryam is not a person you would fuck around with. This was a relief as I had a big worry before going to see the film.
The Perfect Candidate is a joint German-Saudi production. In the last few years there have been a number of “feminist” films from Germany and Austria about Muslim women. All the ones I’ve seen share 3 characteristics: they are set in the West, Islam is depicted as a singularly sexist religion, and the female characters are powerless, which means that they have little agency of their own.
If there’s one thing Maryam has, it’s agency. She may not be able to overturn the old orders (spoiler alert) but she is able to improve her environment and her story is one of empowerment. On the way, she makes peace with her father and her late mother – a wedding singer – neither of whom had a job that was considered to be reputable. There is also reasonable evidence that their neglect of the young Maryam probably helped nurture her strong-willed independence.
Occasionally the plot is a little daft. Maryam only finds out about her election result when a friend shows her a recording of the news on his phone. Look, I’m not expecting her to organise an election party but you’d expect her to have paid a little bit of interest. Nonetheless, its a minor quibble about a film that’s well worth seeing. The plot is occasionally formulaic and might have taken a few more risks, but it does what it does, and it does this very well.