Friday, January 24, 2020

Sundance with Abe: The Perfect Candidate

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the seventh time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can, as well as video reviews uploaded to YouTube.

The Perfect Candidate
Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour

Gender roles in society are shaped by many years of tradition, and often take a long time to evolve from systems that may seem archaic and highly sexist. There are interesting contradictions that come with change, like a woman being able to become a doctor but being treated as inferior to the male nurses who work under her or being permitted to run for office but not legally allowed to address a group of male constituents. Such misaligned values are frustrating and inherently make for very watchable and thought-provoking cinema.

Maryam (Mila Al Zahrani) works at a local clinic in Saudi Arabia where some patients refuse to be treated by her or even to look her in the eye. She plans to attend a conference where she will be able to interview for a better position elsewhere, but when her travel permit is deemed expired, circumstances lead her to an unexpected path. Determined to get the broken and often unusable road to the clinic paved, she announces her candidacy for municipal council, well aware that she faces an uphill battle in a society where most men - and many women - believe that a woman’s place is undeniably in the home.

Maryam experiences differing degrees of support for her endeavors from within her own family, representing the spectrum of liberal thinking within her culture. Her sister Selma (Dae Al Hilali), who works as a wedding videographer, embraces the chance to make campaign videos and arrange lavish fundraisers. Her teenage sister Sara (Nora Al Awadh) worries immediately about the gossip that will come from her candidacy. Her father Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), who is away touring with his band, combating other traditionalist objections to the performance of music, doesn’t believe it’s a smart idea but knows that he’s powerless to stop his daughter when she sets her mind to something. The four family members serve as effective emblems for what being open-minded and feminist in a religious society can mean.

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who recently made the English-language “Mary Shelley” and “Nappily Ever After,” returns to her Saudi roots with a film that showcases another trailblazing female, who in this case isn’t initially concerned with improving women’s status but focused instead on just one issue. Al-Mansour, best known for “Wadjda,” crafts a film that stays with its characters and watches as they discover things they didn’t know about themselves and their priorities. Saudi Arabia’s official 2019 submission for the Oscar for Best International Feature is a strong and resonant look at a place and way of life that may seem generations behind what most American audiences know and has plenty to say about the complexities of its existence.


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