Oscars: Saudi Arabia Selects 'The Perfect Candidate' for International Feature Film Category (Exclusive)

Courtesy of Razor Film
'The Perfect Candidate'

Haifaa Al Mansour's tale of a young female doctor who challenges Saudi's patriarchal society marks only the country's third submission to the Academy, and the first since it lifted a 35-year cinema ban.

Saudi Arabia has selected Haifaa Al Mansour's The Perfect Candidate as its official entry for the 2020 Oscars in the best international feature category, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

The film — which competed for the Golden Lion in Venice — marks only the country's third submission to the Academy, its first coming in 2014 with Al Mansour's acclaimed debut feature Wadjda, which for many was a surprise omission from the nominations. The country's submission three years later, Barakah Meets Barakah, also didn't make it through to the final shortlist. 

The selection was made by the Saudi Academy Awards Committee, an independent group of filmmakers and cinema figures chaired by local director Abdullah Al-Eyaf (Cinema 500km).

Starring Mila Al Zahrani, Nora Al Awadh and Dae Al Hilali, The Perfect Candidate sees Al Mansour again offer a subtle examination of Saudi's deeply patriarchal society, focusing on a female doctor who challenges the system by running as a candidate in the municipal council elections to fix the road leading up to her clinic. 

In her review, The Hollywood Reporter's Deborah Young described the film as almost a "grown-up version" of Wadjda — which told the story of a rebellious little girl who enters a Qur'an reading competition to win a bike — adding that it was a "feel-good Middle East tale" about a "courageous young woman who establishes her own identity in one of the most repressive male-oriented societies in the world."

Young also praised the performance of Saudi TV actress Al Zahrani in the lead role as a "young, heavily veiled doctor who releases her inner firebrand when she finds an issue worth fighting for."

Speaking to THR ahead of the film's premiere in Venice, Al Mansour said she hoped people would see the "universality" in the story. "Women everywhere, whether they're in politics or the corporate world, or even as a director, we're always challenged," she added. "There are so many hurdles that we need to go over as women that men don't face. Even the way we dress or talk is judged." 

The Perfect Candidate is the first film from Saudi Arabia to be submitted to the Oscars since the country famously announced that it was lifting a 35-year ban on cinemas in late 2017, part of widespread cultural reforms. Announced in Cannes 2018, where the kingdom made its festival debut, the film became the first to receive funding by the newly-established Saudi Film Council.

The Perfect Candidate also marks the return of Al Mansour — now one of the Middle East's most famous directors — to her homeland, having followed up the success of Wadjda with period romance Mary Shelley, starring Elle Fanning, and Netflix comedy Nappily Ever After. She's currently in Virginia directing an episode of the Showtime limited series The Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke as abolitionist John Brown.