Saudi rom-com Barakah Meets Barakah a surprise hit at Berlin Film Festival

Director Mahmoud Sabbagh discusses his desire to show the world a different side of Saudi Arabia.

Hisham Fageeh and Fatima Al Banawai in Barakah Meets Barakah. Courtesy El-Housh Productions
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It just doesn’t sound as if it can be right – a romantic comedy made in Saudi Arabia by Saudi ­filmmakers.

After all, the country has only one cinema – an Imax that shows science documentaries – and only one film has previously been made in the kingdom, the ­Bafta-nominated Wadjda in 2012.

Yet despite all the seemingly insurmountatable hurdles, ­Barakah Meets Barakah was not only produced, it screened to riotous laughter at the Berlin Film Festival last week.

The film's director is Mahmoud Sabbagh. Born in 1983 in Jeddah, he has a master's degree in documentary filmmaking from the Columbia School of Journalism in New York. Barakah Meets Barakah is his first film, but before that he made a 10-part webseries, also filmed in Saudi Arabia.

“I wanted to make a film about public space,” says Sabbagh.

Showing signs of the acerbic wit that bubbles throughout his film, he adds: “No one wants to watch a film about public space – it’s a very boring subject. So, I incorporated this love story about a young couple who want to date in public.”

Saudi Arabian comedian Hisham Fageeh stars as Barakah. He is best known for his 2013 viral YouTube hit, No Woman, No Drive, a spoof of Bob Marley's, No Woman No Cry, which satirised the Saudi law banning women from driving.

He plays a Saudi civil servant, who meets and falls for Bibi (­Fatima Al Banawi), who has become an online celebrity thanks to her Instagram pictures.

Sabbagh decided to make Bibi a social-media star because “this is a growing trend among youngsters in Saudi”.

Online is also the easiest way for people to meet. “The internet is a public space for them,” he says. “They meet there and they express themselves there. It’s almost the only institution that speaks to the their values: it’s instant, it’s free, it’s liberal, so I wanted to show this in the film as well. It’s growing, the young using social-media applications and YouTube.”

Because this is only the second movie made in Saudi Arabia, for most of the cast and crew this was their first experience of ­filmmaking.

“So I cast people from my surroundings, from my everyday life, and I also cast people from the real streets,” says Sabbagh.

Even Al Banawi is a family friend. The director has known her for 10 years and she had just finished studying for a master’s degree at Harvard when Sabbagh called her to make the film.

The country’s strict religious police are some of the protagonists of the story, though they are largely absent from the screen.

“This is our main struggle, honestly,” says Sabbagh. “I think they are responsible for having a one-colour society in Saudi.

“I barely show them in the film because they are in our surroundings, in our everyday life – but we don’t see them. So they act like a big brother, in a way. I wanted to show the tension but not show them.”

The film also contrasts the Saudi Arabia of the 1960s and 70s with today’s society.

“I wanted to show how societies can plunge at any point,” says Sabbagh. “How they can also come back. “In the 1960s and 1970s, Saudi Arabia was relatively liberal – there was no what is now called political Islam – there were almost none in the public space, in the political discourse. But after, in the 80s, there were a lot of changes in the world. Conservative values have prevailed – in America, in Europe, like the Thatcher era, whatever.

“Saudi Arabia was also affected. The officials of Saudi funnelled money and fighters in the Afghanistan war, for example. We were accounted for these things, because these people came back later in the 1990s – and it’s the Saudi we live in now.”

Yet while his frustrations are clear, Sabbagh also gives us a representation of Saudi Arabia international audiences have never seen before, certainly not in the news. Despite the challenges, the film’s characters are enjoying life and there is a lot of laughter. The film also has forthright, strong, independent women.

“I wanted to show a balanced image of the country,” says Sabbagh. “Again, films are not a journalistic piece where you have to be accurate about everything. Films are just films, they are art.

“I also wanted to capture the public ethos of the city, of the country, of all sorts of tensions that youngsters face in everyday life.”

Sabbagh says that only when more films are being made will people around the world get a true depiction of life in Saudi Arabia, as there is more than one truth.

“I’m very glad that film is also playing this role in debunking some of the stereotypes and ­clearing some of the prejudices about society but honestly, this is the Saudi that I live in,” he says. “This is Jeddah. This is, for me, my everyday life.”