Saudi film ‘Amra and the Second Marriage' tackles a shift in tradition

We talk to director Mahmoud Sabbagh about tackling masculinity and polygamy in his new tragicomedy

Alshaima’a Tayeb, who plays Amra is not a professional actor. She used the experiences of her friends in the same situation to help shape the character. Courtesy Mahmoud Sabbagh
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Amra and the Second Marriage, the highly anticipated new film from Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh, will have its Arabian premiere as part of the Horizons of the Arab Cinema competition at the Cairo Film Festival, which starts on Tuesday.

Told in the tragicomedic style of the Coen Brothers, Sabbagh's film tells the story of a 44-year-old housewife ­discovering that her retiring husband is planning to marry for a second time, with his new wife-to-be younger than the first.

Chided by her mother-in-law for having “only” produced daughters, Amra is initially placid and accepting of her husband’s desire for a wife who may bear him a son, but her mood darkens as the realities of the tightening of economies and the chaos in her own household set in. Should she be the one to make all the sacrifices?

"Of course the practice of marrying more than one wife has become less common, particularly in urban communities, but it still exists," the director tells me when we meet in the cafe of the Curzon Soho following the film's world premiere at the London Film Festival.

“For me, it’s captivating to show the emotions that first wives go through. There is not only the stigmatisation about the whole thing, but it’s fascinating to see how Amra tries to make sense of what’s happening. As often happens, her husband tries to hide his second marriage from her, but when she finds out, it’s like fire.”

At the centre of the film is a delicate performance by non-professional actor Alshaima'a Tayeb as Amra. She has worked in advertising, and fashion, and is currently studying herbalism. "I don't want method actors, so as usual I cast from my organic surroundings," says Sabbagh, who had an extensive rehearsal period with Tayeb. "Also Alshaima'a knows a lot of first wives in her circles, so she helped me to shape the character."

A handout photo of Mahmoud Sabbagh, director of Barakah yoqabil Barakah | Barakah Meets Barakah (Photo by Ahmed Mater) *** Local Caption ***  201614526_7.jpg
Saudi director Mahmoud Sabbagh is the head of the new Saudi film festival. Photo by Ahmed Mater

The action takes place in a fictional city near a gas field where the workforce lives. Similar residential areas in Saudi Arabia house people from all different backgrounds and classes, especially as an increasing number of Saudis take jobs as consultants, ­resulting in people with more modern attitudes living next door to traditional families. It's the perfect melting pot to reflect the tensions and changes that come with a ­modernising Kingdom.

"This film as much as it's about a housewife in her forties, is also about the whole cultural and social climate in Saudi," says the 35-year-old director. "It's been enthralling to try and observe and mock these stiff paradigms. I make films about hierarchies and power structures. In this case, about masculinity and patriarchy."

Yet, he is also clear that he doesn't want to make movies that offend anyone. He wants to highlight the issues with wit and charm, just as he did with his hit debut film, Barakah Meets Barakah. Sabbagh may have a master's degree in journalism and documentary filmmaking from Columbia University in New York, but he makes films in the Kingdom for a Saudi audience.

“One could write scholarly papers on patriarchy, or become an antagonistic activist, and these are legitimate ways of attacking and combating patriarchy,” says Sabbagh. “But as a filmmaker, I wanted to make a film that makes people laugh and also makes those who have patriarchal tendencies smile as well.”

The director is a pioneer, and is making cultural observational films in a nascent industry at a time when it's still unclear what the boundaries and limitations are. It's a grey area. When he shot his debut feature in 2015, there were no cinemas in his native land and consequently, there were no procedures for making movies. The only way to make a narrative feature in Jeddah was to apply for a license to make a television series.

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"Then I just made a film," Sabbagh says. "As [German screenwriter]Werner Herzog says: 'Always ask for forgiveness, don't ask for permission.' And to be honest, people loved the movie and I think that was because it was honest."

Ironically enough, Barakah Meets Barakah is about a young millennial couple trying to flirt with the Kingdom's rules so that they can meet in person, away from their keyboards and social media. How far can they push the limits without incurring the wrath of the authorities? The film premiered in 2016 at the Berlin Film Festival, and it went on to become a highlight.

It also won the approval of the ­Kingdom's authorities and was chosen as the Saudi Foreign Language Oscar submission. The building of cinemas and the acceptability of movie-making alongside allowing women to drive and permitting musicians to perform concerts, is part of the modernisation process announced under the Saudi Vision 2030 umbrella, which aims to reduce the state's reliance on oil for revenue.

"Amra and the Second Marriage is one of the first films to be made in Jeddah that has an actual film license," says Sabbagh. "I hope it also becomes the first Saudi film to be distributed in Saudi cinemas. At the moment, it's a bit early to say if that will happen, but I will push for it."

Thus far, though, with the director's cinematic dreams, it seems that the impossible always becomes possible. "I've always been fascinated by storytelling, and I'm an avid reader and watch a lot of films, so in 2015 I visited the Berlinale as a tourist," he says. "I didn't know anyone in international cinema. I just bought the tickets from the booth and I thought if these kids can make films, why can't I? I have a unique story. I have things I want to say. I did Barakah with the least amount of resources, and most of the actors were my friends and family and we shot in our own houses. With Amra, it became more structured and professional. My third film will probably be a hybrid of both styles."

Amra and the Second Marriage will screen at the Cairo International Film Festival, which runs from Tuesday until November 29