At the start of “Barakah Meets Barakah,” Mahmoud Sabbagh wastes no time in poking a little fun at what you’re about to see — or not, as the case may be in his feature debut and just the second feature film ever to be shot in Saudi Arabia. Noting that there will be pixelation in the film that is “not because of censorship — we repeat, it’s not because of censorship,” the preface is ironic not only in its acknowledgement of being born out of one of the world’s most media unfriendly countries, where movie theaters have been banned since the 1980s, but in the fact that it sees contemporary Saudi Arabia so clearly.
A satire that is as bright in its ideas about the ongoing tension between the past and the future as it is in its vivid, candy-colored vision of a country reinventing itself with a new generation empowering themselves to make their own way forward, “Barakhah Meets Barakah” also rejuvenates the romantic comedy, setting up an officious civil servant named Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) with an Instagram sensation who goes by Bibi (Fatima Al-Banawi) who catch each other’s interest at an art exhibit and then find it difficult to meet up again — as Bibi notes, only convenience stores and pharmacies will suffice for public dates when singletons of the opposite sex being seen together at fancy restaurants or the beach is off-limits.
While Bibi enjoys flouting laws that Barakah is tasked with enforcing, Sabbagh is actually setting a course for aspiring new filmmakers from the region to follow in making such a bold first feature, packed with locations traditionally unseen by those living outside the Middle East and retiring the image of a culture stuck in the sand, traditionally flecked with grit visually in, in favor of one alive with possibility, where employees toiling for the municipality yearn to devote themselves to artistic pursuits full-time, such as Barakah’s co-worker who enlists him to star as Ophelia in his production of Hamlet, and social media allows new forms of personal expression.
During the Toronto Film Festival where the film made its North American debut after being named Saudi Arabia’s official entry for this year’s foreign-language Oscar, Sabbagh, Fageeh and Al-Banawi spoke about the responsibility of being cinematic pioneers in Saudi Arabia, finding the right tone for the astute and droll comedy and the excitement of taking the film around the world.
Mahmoud Sabbagh: I always wanted to make a movie, and I always wanted to own my story. I come from a generation where we are almost voiceless. We have less opportunities politically, socially, economically, so we also know [we have to] create our own opportunities. I wanted always to make a film about this generation’s challenges and do something that is very genuine, very honest.
How did Hisham and Fatima get cast?
Mahmoud Sabbagh: Hisham has been always present – he does sketches, mockumentaries and comedy [with a group] on YouTube. He studied improvised stand-up comedy in New York, and he had never done a fiction [film] before, but he had always been in my mind for this specific role. I wanted to cast someone who is aware of this meta-style and this cynical type of comedy.
Hisham Fageeh: I was debating whether I should leave my previous post – I was head of content at a company where we did short films and advertisement content for YouTube, and Mahmoud had caught me, like, “Listen, I want to do a movie, and I would love for you to be the main actor.” This is long before I knew the plot or of Fatima’s involvement. He described it to me, and he told me there would be cross-dressing. I was like, “Yes, I’m in, 100%.” I just wanted to do something fun. The reason why I left my previous company is that it felt like it wasn’t as edgy and artistic, and doing this film got me back into this feeling of I’m doing something cool.
Mahmoud Sabbagh: Then Fatima was just around my family circle, and I was looking for a personality more than an actress.
Fatima Al-Banawi: I was just about to graduate with my master’s degree last year and I had known [Mahmoud] for several years before the film. We had a lot of conversations about our generation, about art, about social impact and history and our heritage and he was like, “Listen, I have this script. It’s still a work in progress, but read it when you’re back home. I want you for this role.” I was like, “What? I graduate with a master’s degree in theology and psychology, and I’m doing a film?” In the back of my head, I really wanted it. The fact that it was a full [feature] film with all these social elements and history that it’s bringing forward, like talking about different socioeconomic backgrounds, privilege, and who has access to what, and all this encouraged me to pursue this. I didn’t see it as separate from what I was doing in my studies.
Mahmoud Sabbagh: Fatima really has it all – she believes in the ideas in the film and I made her audition, but I thought she’s good. Then Fatima, Hisham and I rehearsed for four months almost everyday. When we went to shoot those scenes together, we’d shoot them in one or two takes.
Hisham Fageeh: Before we did anything, [Mahmoud]’s been writing forever. He had a really good script. It had great dramatic drive and conflict, and we were just really happy about it, so we read it together, like a table read, and [Mahmoud] gave me this really awesome device where he would tell me what’s my emotional motivation in each scene and we created this bond together. It’s a marriage between everything — the way we speak to each other, and I’d know if she said [a certain line] this long, then she would have to take a breath.
Mahmoud Sabbagh: Yeah, I try through my art to challenge dominant dynamics or structures, and challenge the masculinity of the city and the society, so there is some tackling of gender taboos in the film. I made both main characters cross-dress, but within the cultural norms of the society, to shake the gender dynamic, and for me, also having a protagonist name that is unisex is part of this approach.
For Hisham and Fatima, was there a key to figuring out these characters?
Hisham Fageeh: I know my character is a virgin, so that informed a lot of my body language. our culture is heavily influenced by Egyptian and Sudanese and Lebanese comedic rhetorical devices, so there’s a rich pool of stuff to really be inspired from, and I tried to bring forth the best that I thought was the best to every scene — we [had mood boards] from Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” and Elia Suleiman’s “Divine Intervention.” And of course we have our own national narrative and culture to inform us.
Fatima Al-Banawi: I’ve always been an outsider to the Instagram boom. There are a lot of girls on social media, either promoting a brand or their own fashion line or contributing to social messages, and I’ve always used that as material for my own research, in terms of where women are headed or the social infrastructure of Saudi Arabia — where it’s going and how social media affects it. But I was a bit of an observer, which definitely helped me understand my character. At the beginning, I was a bit judgmental of her, which distanced me from her. With a lot of rehearsing, and more understanding of her family background, and also how complicated it is for her as a woman, and as someone who wants to contribute to social impact and bring good to [others], I empathized with her. and I wanted to do her justice.
It’s particularly clever to make Barakah a civil servant who has to travel around the city since it lets you show the diversity of Saudi Arabia. Did you know the job before even figuring out the character?
Mahmoud Sabbagh: Of course, using someone who represents authority gives you an indication of power structure in the city – how the city functions and that although he is a person of authority and he impose order, there always layers that are [above] him. It also gave me the freedom of tackling the issues of public space, which my movie is about – dating in public and being represented in the streets, and I guess what I’m trying to say with this movie is to reclaim the street, reclaim the beat of the generation, and maybe also define a new cinema.
You also seem to subvert the traditional image of Saudi Arabia in other films and television. Did you know immediately how you’d present this visually?
Mahmoud Sabbagh: Sure, I’m from Saudi Arabia, and the Westerner will always think if there’s a film from Saudi, it’s about oppression or Jihad, or bad governance. These issues do exist, but I wanted to do something that is very local, very grounded, and very organic with a sense of humor and this confident tone. I didn’t want to lament our reality, but to make something that is cynical but also light because we come for a region where the news every day is really horrific and outrageous, so I think our cinema should be something that is less of a burden.
Since this is only the second feature from Saudi Arabia, what kind of infrastructure is there to make a film?
Mahmoud Sabbagh: We had to build everything from scratch in terms of production, and I wrote the film, and we rehearsed, and I cast the people from my surroundings. We had family and friends’ houses as locations, and I’d been preparing this for a whole year and I knew exactly what I wanted in each shot, so I picked the locations carefully to adhere to a certain aesthetic mood board.
But there is no infrastructure and there are no cinemas [to show the film in], so you cannot monetize your investment directly. There is no guild to protect you as a producer, a filmmaker, or even as an actor, and there are no film schools, so we lack crew and casts. That being said, in a very premature landscape like Saudi, there are also privileges that comes from that. You’re free to do whatever creatively because you don’t [depend on] state money that is dictating what to do and what not to do, and then because my film has been hailed at major festivals as a rare Saudi film, I’m using that [as a draw for the film], but it’s a privilege.
Was there a particularly challenging day of shooting?
Fatima Al-Banawi: I always remember two scenes — one is actually a very short scene when I drove the car and one piece of the camera fell as I was driving, and it was this moment of realization: I have this huge mustache on my face, I’m in a Ferrari, and I’m alone with a camera set, and it’s falling, and I’m responsible. I need to take charge of this. So I started laughing and talking to the camera [and said to the crew], “Guys, I’m coming back,” so I make this U-turn and I come back to them. We had to take two takes for this one. The second one was actually Hisham and I in Barakah’s car. It was hot and there was no AC. We’re on a public street with a lot of cars, and we had one take, so it was really intense, but when I watch it, both these scenes are beautiful when we see them now.
Hisham Fageeh: We laugh about it now, that we were crying then.
Mahmoud Sabbagh: On the first day of the shoot, the actor who played the crazy uncle [Da’ash] died on the first day of the shoot. Not on the set, but he had a heart attack at home, so we had to put in a replacement who is in the film. He was initially going to play the role, but the reason I brought him out during the preparation was because he’s illiterate and had a really hard time memorizing the lines. Although I really loved him, I had to give the role to someone else. When [that person] died on the first day of the shoot, it was really devastating. I called [Sami Hifny] again and we got him.
Hisham Fageeh: He’s an amazing character, but sometimes we’d have to repeat stuff 40, 50 times.
Mahmoud Sabbagh: He gave us a really hard time during the shoot, but the results were amazing. I love him.
Mahmoud, you were a journalist before getting into film – why the transition?
Mahmoud Sabbagh: I want to make art because art is more subtle and more soft. Journalism is more about maybe observing and looking for truth, but in art you have a bigger room for creating. I used to be a Op-Ed columnist, and I used that to tackle the issues that has frustrated my generation the most. I also worked as a memoirist of the town of Jeddah, and I used to collect archival material, whether it’s photographs, or videos, or even oral history, and I incorporated that in the movie in a way when I made this montage about comparison of Saudi past and present. The whole movie is fictional, but this part has maybe more political significance, or a direct political message, and I used pictures I’ve been collecting for years.
Mahmoud Sabbagh: I’m happy and grateful. We always thought people will relate to it and love it, and having people from all over the world watching the movie and enjoying it, it’s just great. And I am honored [by the Oscar selection] honestly. Let’s not think too much of nationalism or nationalities, but let’s think about this part of the reward – my community is almost never represented. Their stories are not told in a systematic matter. The only news you get is from media culture and the politics and I always thought this is not balanced coverage of this place, so having a film that is purely art representing Saudi Arabia for Oscar [consideration] is great.
Hisham Fageeh: It’s so cool. Everybody has been so loving. Sometimes I feel like I’m on “Candid Camera.” We worked our asses off, but a lot of people do the same, and they’re not as lucky. We’re lucky to have great writers and actors to make a good movie. I want it to be seen by as many people as possible, especially in my home country. That’s really, really important to me and the way the West plays in to this whole plan is that in our country, we don’t think anything is worthy until Westerners like it. We still have that weird inferiority complex. If If it gets nominated for the Oscar, people will be like, “Oh, this movie is amazing. I want to see it now.”
Fatima Al-Banawi: We’re definitely at a point where we’ve been accustomed for so long to see representations of our hometown, our country, our part of the world being portrayed on our behalf, and it’s about time that we take charge and [be] our own agents, still being mindful that this is only one of several different portrayals possible. It encourages other people to step forward and make more films and make more statements and [offer] more representations. It’s been great.
“Barakah Meets Barakah” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the London Film Festival on October 6th at the Curzon Soho Cinema Screen 1 at 6:30 pm and October 8th at the Cine Lumiere at 8:30 pm.