November 12, 2019

Saudi Arabia/Germany production

Director:  Haifaa al-Mansour

Maryam ( Mila Alzhrani) is a doctor in a small town in Saudi Arabia who is not respected.  We see this when a seriously injured older man who has been injured in a truck accident refuses to be touched by a woman doctor, by Maryam. Instead, to his great detriment, male nurses treat him.

Frustrated about her situation in a small-town hospital, she takes time off to go to a medical conference in Dubai but never gets there, prevented from flying because her travel document hasn’t been renewed by a male guardian.  She cannot do it for herself as a woman.  She tries to reach her father who is on the road with his band for the first time in some years, as the conservative leadership in Saudi Arabia opposed the playing of music. 

Both of her parents were musicians.  Her mother was a singer and earlier in their marriage they had travelled together.  The mother is dead and Maryam and her two sisters live with their father.  We follow Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), the father and his band as well as Maryam. 

Maryam is called back to the hospital after failing to get a cousin to help her get her visa.  In order to get into his office, she accepted an application form to run for municipal office only so she can ask him to help her out.  Application form in hand, she makes the decision to actually complete it and run for office.  She is furious with the municipality for its failure to pave the road leading to the hospital which becomes a quagmire whenever it rains, making it almost impossible to get patients in wheelchairs and ambulance drivers to carry stretchers into the hospital without getting stuck in the mud. 

Her father away, her two sisters, Sara (Nora al Awaah) and Selma (Dae al Hilali), while at first not keen on her decision to run for political office, come around, especially her sister who is a photographer.  The unfolding of the campaign is beautifully handled as they learn how to run a campaign step by step from youtube.  Her sister makes a video of Maryam presenting her reasons for running for office in order to get the word out. They hold a candidate’s event for women only at which they hold an abaya fashion show.   The abaya is the covering the women wear outdoors.  The women wear western dress indoors, covering their heads, bodies and faces when they go outdoors or when strange men are around. Maryam is interviewed on TV by a condescending interviewer who keeps asking her about “women’s concerns”.  There’s even an event for men with Maryam in one place and the men in another watching her on a monitor.

Meanwhile, we follow the band as they travel from town to town.  Although in some cases there are negative reactions to them, mostly they are well received and the concerts are well attended.  The songs they sing are romantic, syrupy love songs.  I found the contrast between how women are treated in the film, the infantilization of women, and these love songs contradictory.  I was able to ask the director about this.  Her answer was in my mind, odd.  The director lives outside the country which undoubtedly facilitates her ability to make films.  When she made her first film in Saudi Arabia she had to sit in the vehicle while directing the film.  This time she could get out of the vehicle although she did admit that there were times she took a back-seat to her male assistant.  Yet her answer was that they, Saudi Arabians, are very romantic people when it comes to their love interests.  She seemed quite sincere in her response, and did not pick up on how strange it might appear, at least from a non-Saudi perspective.

Overall this was a delightful and uplifting film, as we watch Maryam grow in strength and determination as she confronts the obstacles placed in front of her as a woman in such a patriarchal society.

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