I’ve been wanting to watch The Perfect Candidate ever since watching Wadjda, by the same director Haifaa al-Mansour, last year. For far too long, the former was not readily available online: it finally is now.
Haifaa al-Mansour is Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker, and one of the countries most well-known and controversial. Both films are set in Saudi Arabia; both follow outspoken, confident female protagonists, living within and struggling against the misogynist society they find themselves within.
Wadjda, the 2012 movie’s title character, is a ten-year-old rebellious girl who desperately wants a bicycle, to cycle with and race her friend — a local boy. In a deeply conservative society girls and women cycling is frowned upon. Wadjda’s mum, feeling this pressure, refuses to buy Wadjda a bike. To raise the money herself, Wadjda — a character full of life, and full of a youthful innocence which refuses such restrictions — hatches various mischievous schemes.
It’s been said that The Perfect Candidate’s protagonist, Maryam, could be Wadjda’s older sister. While Maryam is, initially at least, less outwardly rebellious, in many ways the issues dealt with in this 2019 film resemble a grown-up version of those seen in al-Mansour’s feature-length debut.
A female doctor, Maryam faces sexism, restrictions, and infantilisation from patients, co-workers, state officials, and wider society. Then almost by accident, Maryam finds herself running for office in the municipal elections. Her campaign’s central plank is to mend the unusable road leading up to the hospital she works in. But the sexist backlash and the gender segregated society she faces forces her to fight back, to champion women’s rights.
At a time when cinemas were more-or-less illegal, Wadjda was the first feature film set entirely in Saudi Arabia. As a woman, al-Mansour had to direct much of the film hidden in her van, communicating with cast and crew via walkie-talkie. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot publicly interact with men outside of their families.
Yet this highly critically acclaimed film reveals none of that distance. It interweaves comic relief with scenes which leave the viewer feeling upset, angry, empowered, or jubilant.
It could be easy — and justified — for either of these films to become a single-minded righteous polemic. But they don’t. They develop character depth, revealing the sometimes contradictory intricacies of Saudi life in schools, homes, work, social situations, and beyond. A fully painted picture makes the situations and characters relatable: only someone with a heart of stone would not find themself rooting for Wadjda, or for Maryam.
The Perfect Candidate too, has comic, emotional, and human sides. It reveals more of the parallel but different difficulties adults face in a segregated society, one in which women are — legally and socially — generally treated as men’s property.
For me, a crucial ingredient necessary for a genuinely great left-wing film is agency. Both films meet this criteria, and leave the viewer with a sense of empowerment. Not in a Hollywood-style cliché of one inhuman hero who saves or transforms the world. No: in the sense of individual women not giving up, and instead fighting back against a system stacked against them — and getting somewhere.
Both deserve to be much better known. If I had to pick, I think Wadjda has the edge: but you should watch both.