Barakah Meets Barakah
Barakah Meets Barakah, by director Mahmoud Sabbagh, is truly eye-opening and world-expanding. Like another Saudi Arabian comedy, Wadjda (which played at VIFF in 2013), it has elements of sweetness, hilarious absurdity as well as little moments of heartbreak. Both are successful as works of art, as they say something essential and human. But both are also fascinating cultural artifacts, giving Western viewers a much more rich and nuanced idea of life inside the Kingdom.
Barakah is a humble municipal official enforcing permits and regulations. His uniform is a white robe and one of those red and white checked headdresses. Initially he looks like he might be someone important but he really isn't. Barakah is checking out the permits for a photo shoot when he spots Bibi, an Instagram star and model for her mother's clothing brand. He's smitten by her small rebellions as well as by her beauty. As in all romantic comedies, they are an unlikely couple who face obstacles. In fact, I'm not even sure what happens at the end and I am glad that the film didn't have an obvious resolution.
The performances are really fun to watch. The main actor, it turns out, is a stand-up comedian. There is stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia? Another preconception shattered. Until seeing this film I had no idea what an art opening might look like in Saudi Arabia and the answer is not too different from one in North America only with less wine, less people and the possibility that the female guests will have to run out the door when the religious police arrive.
It is interesting that Bibi is rich, which in some ways gives her more opportunities than Barakah. In other ways, of course, she is more constrained and even as a feisty character, she complies when her mother insists that she delete an Instagram post. It is wonderful to see Barakah when he literally lets down his hair. When his is not working, or nervously trying to meet Bibi, he wears some outrageous outfits and has a totally ridiculous hairstyle. There are a few unnecessary subplots and others that might have been developed further, but despite these flaws I found it impossible not to like this combination of earnestness and irreverence.
The film's most clunky sequences involve a couple of photomontages which detail life a generation or so earlier, in more freewheeling times. In voiceover, the main character criticizes his elders for having their fun and then getting scared and giving in to extremism and repression. And while this is artistically out of place (although the photos are incredible) something does seem necessary to make this film about more than gags about how hard it is to date a girl who you aren't really technically allowed to see. Barakah Meets Barakah is actually more effective, though, when it engages with the larger context via small details—a well-stocked home bar, an all-male Hamlet played to no audience, an all-female baby shower where the guests are all in costumes or drag.
Screenings 7th October 2016 11:15 AM and 10th October 9:15 PM, both at International Village 10.