A young Saudi Arabian female doctor seeks to change conservative mindsets in ‘A Perfect Candidate’, a tale of a woman tackling gender-based obstacles while running for local office.
The movie by Haifaa Al Mansour, one of only two female directors in the 21-strong competition line-up at the Venice Film Festival, reflects recent changes in the kingdom’s heavily criticised guardianship system, beginning with protagonist Maryam driving in her car.
When a planned trip to Dubai falls apart, Maryam ends up putting her name down to run for municipal council. Disheartened by the lack of will to pave a road to her medical centre, Maryam makes it her election promise to do so herself if she wins.
Despite facing opposition and gender-based rules, Maryam launches her campaign with the help of her sisters while their widower musician father is away, embarking on a journey Mansour said she hoped sends a message of empowerment to Saudi Arabian women.
The director, who had to direct parts of her acclaimed 2012 film ‘Wadjda’ while concealed in the back of a van, said Saudi Arabia was now “more open”, but women were “shy” to grasp new freedoms and opportunities, such as driving and voting.
“I don’t have to be in a van now,” she said. “I personally want more women to participate in politics and be active members in society and it’s going to be hard because societies are still conservative and families don’t want women to take office or be in public,” Mansour told a news conference.
“But there is a momentum change in Saudi Arabia now and it is a chance of women to take advantage of it.”
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia ended travel restrictions for adult women, allowing them to do so without permission as well as giving them more control over family matters, chipping away at male guardianship rules.
“Our womanhood should transcend beyond race and gender and countries. We should come together as women and really support each other and believe in each other,” Mansour said.
Mansour, whose past works include the English-language ‘Mary Shelley’, peppers her film with plenty of cultural references and love songs performed at weddings or by Maryam’s oud-playing father with his band while on tour.
‘The Perfect Candidate’ is one of two films directed by women out of 21 in the running for this year’s Golden Lion top prize, a year after just one movie by a woman was selected.
The row has been further stoked by the festival’s decision to select a film by Roman Polanski, who was convicted for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old in 1978.
Mansour said that while she wanted to see more films directed by women, a boost was also needed to help them at the earlier stages of finding scripts and financing.
“You don’t come with a sense of authority as a woman. And when you take a leadership position, you always have to really fight,” she said.
She gave an example of her own experience facing pushback from a prop assistant when she told him to change the picture on a wall.
And she burst briefly into tears when she said she wanted women to work together to overcome these obstacles.
“We can empower younger generations... to come to the workplace and find themselves respected without really having to go through that fight,” she said.
“I want my daughter to enjoy a place like that in the future.”
The 76th Venice festival runs until September 7.