Saudi Arabia's official entry to the 2017 Oscars, first-time writer-director Mahmoud Sabbagh's Barakah Meets Barakah is a powerful film that offers a rare insight into what it means to be an internet savvy youngster in the infamously restrictive Kingdom.
The film is Saudi Arabia's second-ever submission to the Oscars (first was Haifaa al-Mansour's Wadjda), and the first that premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival (where it won the Ecumenical Jury prize). The movie, which is playing at the ongoing Mumbai Film Festival, is funny, heartwarming, and most of all, deeply sad.
Ironically, the film cannot be played in its home country because movie theaters are prohibited in the Kingdom, which has one lone cinema hall although the country's youth is hopeful that things might change with the young Prince Mohammed outlining liberal reforms.
As for now, the film is likely to enjoy a run on television and perhaps online within the Kingdom.
Almost the entire film revolves around a young couple trying to date and failing to do so. Their relationship begins to crumble not because of a clash of personalities or interpersonal differences but due to the daunting struggles they've to undergo to simply get to know one another.
Hisham Fageeh's Barakah is an awkward young man from a humble background, perhaps in his early 20s, whose government job involves issuing tickets for small misdemeanors.
One such assignment leads him to local Instagram star Bibi (Fatima al-Banawi), who's in the middle of a racy photo shoot (racy by Saudi's standards means that she gets to show her face as most ads that one sees on billboards there blur the woman's face.) Barakah is instantly besotted, but by his own admission, he has never even 'touched' a woman and so doesn't know how to go about it.
He is so awkward and inexperienced that he sees absolutely nothing inappropriate in giving Bibi a thong as a first gift (a hilarious scene) on his uncle's misguided recommendation. His uncle, the perennially drunk Da'ash, also moonlights as Barakah's armchair wingman doling out gems like "all women love presents."
As the story progresses, we learn of the rebellious Bibi's opulent life -- she lives in a fancy house in an upscale neighborhood and helps her stepmother in a salon. This is in sharp contrast to the innocuous Barakah, who apart from his dreary day job, also plays the role of Ophelia in an amateur theater production, and lives in a dingy house with his sick father.
Bibi reciprocates his feelings but being a girl of progressive ideals, never fails to call out Barakah on his conservative thoughts, which may not be his own as much as they are the product of his environment. He's otherwise a cool guy, charming and funny, and after their many struggles for a romantic rendezvous, he painstakingly arranges a boat date, one of the film's absolute highlights, where you see the otherwise suppressed desires of these youngsters in an unguarded moment.
More than just being a breezy satire, the film is an indication of how the Kingdom's youngsters are torn between conservative forces that revel in imposing moralistic laws and a world that has gone far too ahead, one the internet has dutifully familiarized them with.
What is truly agonizing for these characters is the awareness of the privileges and freedoms enjoyed by millennials of other countries. Were they perhaps better off not knowing the existence of a better world instead of having its knowledge but not the power to change it?
Barakah Meets Barakah is a truly great film because it's a well-thought romantic comedy from Saudi, a country critical of the idea of romance itself. In doing so, the film in itself has become a powerful symbol of protest, a voice of rebellion, one that questions staid and rigid social norms by confronting the staggering hypocrisy in the most gender-segregated nation of the world.
You'd think so, until a profound scene in the movie which explains how things were not always this difficult for the people and there was a time in the Kingdom, in the 80s, when women could roam around freely, where nightlife thrived, coffee shops bloomed, and men and women socialised with careless abandon.
"Your generation enjoyed everything at the time but never stood up for ours when we lost it all," Barakah bitterly tells his father, after yet another failed attempt at a date.
It's heartbreaking and Hisham Fageeh's performance, much like Fatima's, shines with searing honesty.
This is what makes Barakah Meets Barakah a truly great film. Other than a serious film laced with plenty of humor, it also serves an essential purpose of cinema: of chronicling the times.
It's a well-thought romantic comedy from Saudi, a country critical of the idea of romance itself. And in doing so, the film in itself has become a powerful symbol of protest, a voice of rebellion, one that questions staid and rigid social norms by confronting their staggering hypocrisy in the most gender-segregated nation of the world.
Without getting too political, the film subtly makes a case for why the youth is right in demanding to live a life the way they choose to instead of living in the constant fear of the 'religious police' an institutionalised body that governs the Kingdom.
So what if it's a long struggle to reach there, it isn't a wrong one for sure.
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