Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Barakah Meets Barakah entertains while providing insights into life in Saudi Arabia (film review)

The director-scriptwriter-producer of Barakah Meets Barakah  
answered questions from the audience at 
the Hong Kong International Film Festival

Mahmoud Sabbagh and his wife also kindly posed 
for pictures after the screening of his movie

Barakah Meets Barakah (Saudi Arabia, 2016)
- Screening as part of the HKIFF's Young Cinema Competititon program
- Mahmoud Sabbagh, director, scriptwriter and producer
- Starring: Hisham Fageeh, Fatima Al Banawi, Sami Hifny 

When one thinks of a film from the Middle East, one invariably thinks it hails from Iran, whose powerhouse national cinema's leading lights include Abbas Kiarostami and various members of the Makhmalbaf family.  Over the years, I've also seen cinematic gems from Egypt (such as Youssef Chahine's Cairo Station) and Turkey (e.g., Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia).  As it turned out though, the one film from that heavily Muslim part of the world which I viewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival this year hailed from seemingly the most unlikely of places: the kingdom of South Arabia; home to just one cinema -- which screens science documentaries on an IMAX screen.  

Only the second ever feature film made in that country (after 2012's Wadjda), Barakah Meets Barakah is a 100 percent Saudi Arabian production; albeit one whose director-scriptwriter-producer has a master's degree in documentary filmmaking from Columbia University, lead actor also studied at that New York-based Ivy League institution of higher learning, and lead actress who got a master's degree in theology from Harvard University. Set and shot in the port-city of Jeddah, this crowd-pleaser of a movie has been billed as a romantic comedy but its main man prefers to describe it more as a coming of age film that borrows from different genres.  

The one professional actor in its cast, Hisham Fageeh, stars as Barakah, a 20something-year-old civil servant, with a shock unruly hair that he keeps hidden when working, who meets and falls for Bibi (Fatima Al Banawi), a fashionable social media star who posts lots of selfies on Instagram, albeit ones that never show her eyes.  Far from being a man of the world, the virginal Barakah initially gets dating advice from his shisha-puffing, arak-drinking, ex-musician uncle (Sami Hifny), only to be told by Bibi that his methods are too old-fashioned for her liking.  Also potentially in the way of Barakah's attempt to win Bibi's heart is the class divide between them that helps account for his not having ever left the country whereas she thinks nothing of flying off to more liberal Dubai whenever it all gets too much for her in Saudi Arabia.  

As he racks his brains to figure out how to successively woo this spirited female, Barakah laments how there are so many more social restrictions in contemporary Saudi Arabia compared to the 1970s, when Jeddah had cinemas, female entertainers such as Egyptian singing legend Umm Kulthum could appear on TV and there looked to be many more opportunities and public spaces where unmarried men and women could meet and get to know each other. 

The feelings that the makers of this film have about these rules and regulations that collectively make for the biggest obstacles to Barakah's courtship of Bibi is evident in their doing such as showing how ridiculous things ensue from their enforcement -- such as a bearded man, wearing a push-up bra, ending up playing Ophelia in a production of Hamlet as a result of theater troupes being required to be single-sex in Saudi Arabia!

Therein lies the beauty of Barakah Meets Barakah: i.e., that even while on one level, it's a funny romantic comedy about two individuals who have their own amusing quirks, it's also a film that contains quite a bit of interesting social commentary too.  Alternatively put: even as it entertains, this movie also provides food for thought and insights into Saudi Arabian society as being far from uniform and consequently not always conforming to stereotypes outsiders tend to have of its people.

At the post-screening Q&A, filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh talked of how this film not only had the support of his family and friends (who make up many of the cast and crew) but also the authorities as well.  Although it hasn't yet screened in his home country (and, in fact, it was here in Hong Kong that Barakah Meets Barakah had its Asian premiere), he seemed confident that it'd be allowed to be shown -- if not in the country's one cinema, then in other venues; although I reckon that it remains to be seen whether scenes in the film showing such as a Saudi Arabian woman driving and a baby boy's penis will be allowed to remain in the version shown there!

My rating for this film: 7.5     

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