Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah has been described as conventional in form, unconventional in setting.
Surely one of the more conventional films ever to enjoy a premiere at the Berlinale’s risk-embracing Forum parallel section, it’s of considerable interest as a very rare cinematic export from a country where nearly all manifestations of cinema have been officially banned since 1979.
Like Tunisian film Inhebbek Hedi by Mohamed Ben Attia, which has been described as “a conventional story about a young man torn between traditional family life and his desire to break out,” Barakah Meets Barakah plays it relatively safe in terms of form; the twists come from the setting, the restrictions that are imposed by societal norms, which frustrate the romance between the protagonists: Instagram celebrity Bibi played by Fatima Al Banawi, and law-enforcement officer Barakah (played by Hisham Fageeh of No Woman, No Drive fame).
In an interview in Qantara, Mahmoud Sabbagh explains that the film borrows from a number of different genres, and like director of Halal Love, Assad Fouladkar, argues for the need for comedy in dark times:
When I first wrote the film I did not have a ″romantic comedy″ in mind, as it is being referred to at the Berlinale. There is no Saudi cinema, so I had to borrow from different genres. I would describe it more as a coming-of-age film. It has quirky comedic elements. I use comedy as a tactic. We′re living through dark times in the Arab world, the discourse is dominated by terrorism, IS and so on. It′s very heavy stuff. So I made a comedy, because it opens people′s hearts.
Later, he adds that these times are not conducive to films about heroes: “It is not longer about the ″Battle of Algiers″ or the ″Glory of Islam″. There is no glory about this generation; we are more anti-heroes than heroes. This is how we live as a generation. It is not a glorious life. This is the mood at the moment. Morale is not high.”
For more on the generational shift happening in Saudi, check out this panel, featuring Fahad Albutairi, founder of Telfaz11
René Wildangel, in an article on Arab films at the Berlinale, points out that “a common theme shared by several other films from the region at the Berlinale” is “tackling the old and narrow social norms, which remain largely in place after the revolutions.”
He cites Tamer El Said, director of Akher Ayam El Madina (In the Last Days of the City), who reflects on the compulsion to be part of the “long-term project” of the Arab Spring: “something has changed and our films are part of this.”