It’s not often a movie opens with a self-defense statement: “the pixelization you will experience during this film is totally normal. It’s not a commentary on censorship. We repeat: it’s not a commentary on censorship”. It’s not often you will watch a film from Saubi Arabia, either, where notions of “normality” are wildly different from the rest of the world. Also, it’s not clear who the “we” in the strange claim is: the filmmakers or the government censors. The fact that there is no clear pixelisation throughout in the film just adds to the ambiguity of the statement. Perhaps they meant airbrushing. Or maybe it’s coded message for locals? This is not the only ambiguous aspect of the movie.
Barakah meets Barakah is a romantic comedy dealing with a number of taboos in Saudi Arabia, such as empowered women, the influence of Western culture (some Islamic scholars describe it as “Westoxification”) and even cross-dressing. Despite the potential inflammatory topics, the pace is very Bollywodian, the acting is flat and puerile, and the plot is mostly predictable. And of course there is no hot and sweaty action. This will come as a disappointment to Western audiences used to more audacious content and format, but could be highly refreashing to Saudis more used to very strict censors.
The cinema of Saudi Arabia is a very small industry that only produces a handful of feature films and documentaries each year. On the other hand, the population is constantly bombarded with Bollywood. According to a newspaper from the Emirates, 35 channels broadcast Indian content in the region, and it is a safe assumption that most of them reach Saudi Arabia. This explains the innocuous language of the movie, which will probably appeal to locals. Cinema in the style John Waters or Ulrich Seidl wouldn’t go down very well.
The film tells the story of municipal agent Barakah (Hisham Fageeh), whose job is to ensure that local businesses adhere to the strict Saudi law. He develops a friendship and an attraction for Bibi (Fatima Albanawi), a fashionable and rebellious Instagram celebrity. This could be easily interpreted as a propaganda piece: Barakah represents the stern government with a beautiful heart inside. But the film also has its merits.
There are positive messages throughout, as when in Barakah questions Bibi’s adoptive mother about her husband’s abusive behaviour. Cross-dressing for both men and women – while not for sexual fulfillment – is a recurring theme throughout the movie. The great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum is also mentioned in the film, and her images even appear on television. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kulthum was also a cross-dresser in her young years. Of course she is far from the only diva that cross-dressed in the Arab world – you might remember the Jacko Wacko episode in 2006.
The most provocative moment in the film happens when Bibi dons a huge moustache and performs the ultimate subversive act for a female in Saudi Arabia. Except that this wouldn’t be subversive in any other nation in the world. You can probably work out what we mean.
There are other subtle yet revealing aspects to the film. Photographs from the country more progressive past are to be seen occasionally in the movie, and Barakah’s father even expresses nostalgia and longing for such distant and liberal past. Barakah and Bibi talk about art being used to fight consumerism and materialism. There is laso Shakespeare, Tchaikovski and even electronic beats. It would be unfair to describe the film as a circumscribed propaganda piece. There are certainly some unusual flavours in there.
On the other hand, Barakah meets Barakah has no concern with realism, which would almost certainly equate with censorship. Yet it provides foreign audiences with an unusual – if highly romanticised – glimpse into one of the most hermetically closed societies in the world. Tourist visas are still still rarely issued to foreigners, and Saudi Arabia remains enygmatic and elusive to the rest of the world. Barakah meets Barakah provides some insight into the arid and barren urban landscapes, and the few entertainment options for the locals.
Barakah Meets Barakah is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival, which is taking place right now – just click here for more information about the event.
You can also watch the film trailer below: