Thursday, 6 October 2016

BFI LFF 2016: BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH - Dir. Mahmoud Sabbagh

You can be forgiven for not being able to recall the last Saudi Arabian film you watched, such is mere handful of films that have been made there (Hafiaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda is a recent example). Set about changing that is Mahmoud Sabbagh with his debut film Barakah Meets Barakah.

Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) is a frustrated civil servant, enforcing land boundary restrictions and checking permits. He wants more from his life in Jeddah and a chance encounter with Bibi (Fatima Al Banawi), an increasingly rebellious internet star, offers them both hope. So far, so traditional rom-com territory but the country’s strict religious laws make it almost impossible for Barakah and Bibi’s courtship to continue, thus allowing Sabbagh to explore the dichotomy of the traditional and thoroughly modern that exists in this country.

It is forbidden for Barakah and Bibi to be seen alone together in public (unless accompanied by an elder chaperone) so instead of a montage of romantic dates, we see a montage of possible dates that will always be interrupted by the religious police; these officers are never seen or heard, highlighting the anxiety that the authorities create. In scenes like this, Sabbagh crucially keeps the tone light and positive, disguising but not softening the critique of the difficult restrictions in their lives. The restrictions force Barakah to come up with more inventive dates that demonstrate the endearing, natural chemistry that Fargeeh and Al Banawi share.

The tone may be light but the character’s frustrations are treated with the respect they deserve. Although having a life of luxury that many would envy, Bibi grows more restless with her online life. She started her Instagram channel as a way to express herself whilst living in a more reserved society, but the persona she created is slowly being driven by the marketing and brand preservation choices of her mother and her agent. Barakah begins to question the merit of the laws he’s enforcing. He hears how his uncle and other elders lived (somewhat) more freely and wonders why the country changed. The commentary here is sometimes a little too pronounced, with Barakah delivering monologues to no-one in particular, but the sense of dissatisfaction is pertinent.

But again, the rom-com tone and the characters’ sense of optimism prevail. Barakah and Bibi complain but know that it will get them nowhere; they can only try to make the best of it. The laughs perhaps aren’t quite as frequent or as generous as I’d perhaps hoped but the unique perspective this slyly subversive film brings is distinctly memorable.

Barakah Meets Barakah plays at the 60th BFI London Film Festival on Thursday 6th October 2016 and Saturday 8th October 2016.

Visit the festival website for screening times and ticket details.

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