Already named Saudi Arabia’s foreign language Oscar submission, the independently financed, satirical comedy “Barakah Meets Barakah” from debuting writer-director Mahmoud Sabbagh is a smart, charming, and bittersweet tale about the Kingdom’s millennial generation and their take on the social and political restrictions that stand in the way of meeting and mingling with the opposite sex.
Barakah (Hisham Fageeh), a laid-back, 20-something, Jeddah municipal law enforcement officer from a humble background, falls for Bibi (Fatima Al Banawi), a rebellious beauty and Instagram star from a wealthy family, when they meet by chance at a photo shoot. As the young, would-be couple attempt to get to know each other better, the film uses acerbic humor to provide an insightful look at a time and place where traditions and laws clash with the modern world of smartphones and social media. A critical and popular favorite at the Berlin festival, “Barakah” should score with festival and niche arthouse audiences in most territories.
Despite Jeddah’s ample and attractive waterfront, public space here, like in the rest of Saudi Arabia, is under the ever-watchful eye of authority. Meeting the opposite sex in public unchaperoned is prohibited and physical contact is verboten. Barakah and Bibi snatch moments together at art exhibitions and in ethnic neighborhoods. He naively suggests that they become engaged in order to meet more easily, but to Bibi, that’s outdated thinking, and besides, her snooty family is unwilling to accept Barakah as a suitor.
As the easygoing but inexperienced Barakah, who hasn’t so much as held hands with a girl, tries to plan his next move, he’s forced to come to terms with who he is and the society he lives in. Sabbagh includes a telling montage of photographs that contrast life in the Kingdom during Barakah’s father’s time, replete with unveiled women and cinemas, with the way things are today. “Your generation got scared,” Barakah notes ruefully.
Unable to express themselves in public spaces, such as the coffee shop with its inviting sidewalk seating that Barakah closes down as part of his municipal job, young Saudis use social media as an alternative arena. With her avid vlogging, Bibi represents the type of young woman who pushes boundaries by filming herself in bold situations yet keeps her face hidden. Mayada, her adoptive mother, uses Bibi’s image as the “blond trophy” brand of her boutique, but Bibi also has her own account in which she sends out positive messages, advising people to patronize artisanal products.
Sabbagh also contrasts the homes and family lives of Barakah and Bibi. Barakah lives in a lively, congested area, full of noise and men smoking the hookah. His neighbors, such as the unrepentant drunk Da’ash (Sami Hifny) and the garrulous midwife/washerwoman Sa’diyya (Khairia Nazmi), are colorful, plainspoken, down-to-earth types who may mock his use of social media words but they truly care about him. In comparison, Bibi’s enormous, modern art-filled home feels arid. Mayada constantly berates her and uses her as if she is just one more pretty object that she has purchased. And when Mayada becomes pregnant after 20 years of infertility, she and her arrogant husband Hamza casually decide to dispose of Bibi by marrying her off to Hamza’s brother.
While Sabbagh’s script does contain social criticism, he keeps the tone light. For foreign audiences, the opening text, “Note: The pixelization you will experience during this film is totally normal. It is not a commentary on censorship. We repeat, it is not a commentary on censorship,” draws immediate laughs.
A graduate of Columbia U.’s journalism program in documentary filmmaking, Sabbagh keeps his visuals grounded in Jeddah’s ambience and pace, rather than striving to copy Hollywood models. His sympathetic leading actors, neither of whom have been in a feature film before, evince a credible chemistry. Fageeh, who also claims a co-producer credit here, is a standup comedian and internet superstar known for Telfaz 11’s hilarious music-video spoof “No Woman No Drive.” Petite, pretty Al Banawi, a graduate student in theology at Harvard at the time of filming, perfectly embodies an upper-class woman with a mind of her own.
Victor Credi’s handsome widescreen cinematography does a good job of disguising the film’s low budget. The other tech credits suit the scrappy tone.