Mahmoud Sabbagh doesn’t want to rock the boat so much that it sinks. He just wants to rock it enough to bring about social reform in his country.
The Saudi writer-director filmed Barakah Meets Barakah in 25 days, made entirely in Jeddah. The satirical romance is Saudi’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars, making it the country’s second-ever submission (Wadjda, submitted to the 2013 Oscars, was not nominated.)
It premiered — and won an award — at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. And on Thursday, it hits theatres in the UAE. According to Sabbagh, two scenes were cut locally — one involving a hand gesture, and the other including ‘mild profanity’.
“But it’s a comedy movie. People need to chill out,” he laughed, speaking to tabloid! ahead of a private premiere in Dubai on Tuesday.
“This film is about freedom, it’s about censorship, and it’s about public space. In my opinion, public space in Saudi has become more limited in the last thirty years. It’s less diverse. You see less presence of women, people of minorities and foreigners in the usual streets,” he said.
But no one wants to watch a film about public space. It’s a ‘very boring theme’, to hear Sabbagh say it.
“So I had to do the classic boy-meets-girl. I tried to do something very original, something avant-garde, something that defies the dominant storytelling techniques. The movie is about Barakah meets Barakah — in public,” he said.
The film is masterfully done, an independent, low-budget passion project that exudes commitment from the cast and crew in every scene. It’s victorious both for its ability to engross the viewer with a gradual exposition of details, and its razor-sharp cinematography, submerged in warm hues.
The film opens with a shot of Barakah staring at a hot pink bra like it might have the answers to the universe. He’s a simple guy. A municipality worker, best friends with a loud-mouthed, grumpy old man named Uncle Da’ash, who’s the neighbourhood’s go-to person for regressive life advice. Barakah dwells in a rundown apartment and spends his free time unenthusiastically cross-dressing for his role as Ophelia, Hamlet’s female lover, at a theatre no one cares about.
Then there’s Bibi. The discontent internet celebrity who uploads lacklustre ads to Instagram with only her mouth, chin and neck visible. Mayada, the controlling woman she calls her mother, hounds her to shut down her account while simultaneously taking photos of Bibi’s bare abdomen for her own account, Heavenly Hips. Bibi is well-off, living in a sprawling beach house and offered millions to market face creams, but she’s consistently dissatisfied with her restricted life.
When the two meet, a reluctant romance begins. But where could they possible hang out in Jeddah? They conjure up different scenarios — a dinner date, a day at the beach, a night of listening to music in the car — that all end the same way: the police shutting them down.
“This beach is God’s, not yours,” Barakah says at one point, when he’s disallowed entry because he’s a single male. This question of which spaces belong to whom is a recurring one.
“My character is very virginal. He’s an extremely simple, basic character that is based in his own universe. His conceptions of gender, self, love, romance, intimacy, all these things, are completely unchallenged, because he’s in the nature of his environment. Once a certain person comes into his life, everything goes into a whirlwind,” said Hisham Fageeh, the Saudi writer-comedian who plays Barakah.
At the premiere, he wore a white dishdasha, a dark blazer, and bright red sneakers, with his hair pulled up into a bun. He’s known Sabbagh since the two went to university together in America. Fageeh relocated to Saudi afterwards, where he held a job at Telfaz11 for a couple of years. He was homeless and jobless when Sabbagh reached out about the film.
“We weren’t really the closest of friends in New York — we were busy, and we both had our own scenes — he was in journalism, and I was in Middle East studies. But I respected his work,” said Fageeh. The two ‘flirted’ as creatives, with Sabbagh appreciating Fageeh’s satirical work on YouTube.
“He was like, ‘Listen, I’m doing a movie. It’s about public space.’ And that is so sexy to me as a concept. Because people are usually like, ‘Oh, boy meets girl, or guy trying to find himself.’ But this is about public space,” said Fageeh.
When Fageeh heard he would have to cross-dress, he was sold — a fact that Sabbagh confirmed. “Hisham was in because I know he’s a pervert in the mind, like me,” he joked.
Fatima Al Banawi, who plays Bibi, had never acted before. She was doing a Masters in theology at Harvard when Sabbagh, who’s known her since childhood, contacted her. They rehearsed for four months.
“As Saudis, we’re not used to seeing ourselves on screens written and directed and acted by ourselves… We’re so used to seeing ourselves portrayed by others. This film is by us, from us, to us. And to the world. It’s our attempt to present a picture,” said Al Banawi.
“It’s not every representation, because no such film or person can do that. But it’s one attempt to go about our stories, our city, Jeddah.”
The movie is twice interrupted by historical photographs of Saudi Arabia, with a voice-over narration that suggests the freedom of past generations as compared to present day.
“My movie is my submission to the national dialogue,” said Sabbagh.
“I’m comparing Saudi to Saudi — I’m not comparing Saudi to any other nation, not to the West, not to the East. It’s about Saudi in the ’70s and Saudi nowadays. In my opinion, the best way to compare a society is to compare it to itself.”
Fageeh found the film bold because it took two normative narratives to task.
“We’re challenging traditional media, because there is a certain tonation that happens in traditional media in Saudi Arabia. And we’re also challenging Western orientalist views of what the Arab world looks like, or what we want to be perceived as. A lot of times, a self-orientalisation happens,” said Fageeh.
“We’re working very hard to challenge that narrative, to make something edgy, and people really recognise that sincerity. I think that’s what makes our movie unique.”
Al Banawi said the characters reminded her of her friends, her cousins, her neighbours and the people she saw on Instagram.
Indeed, Sabbagh excelled at creating charming primary characters, but more importantly, engaging secondary characters, who have their own lives, priorities and demons to fight, becoming just as pertinent to the film’s storytelling as the main two.
So is that why Barakah Meets Barakah became Saudi’s submission to the Oscars?
“Every country is eligible to submit one entry, and we were probably the only movie [from Saudi], so they pushed our movie,” said Sabbagh, laughing. Sabbagh and the cast will find out whether the film is one of the five shortlisted nominees in January. He’s still fighting to screen the film in his home country.
In the meantime, Fageeh urged UAE residents to go out and watch the film for two reasons.
“From a selfish standpoint, we need money. From a non-selfish standpoint, for the love of arts. For the grace of arts,” he said.
“It’s been critically acclaimed, and we want to see if that critical acclaim holds up cross-continentally. The West love it. So let’s see how we do over here.”