Barakah Meets Barakah (Film Review)

“White stands for purity, pink for passion, and purple… well, purple stands for new beginnings,” she shares. “It’s popular knowledge don’t you know?”

Sadly her suitor, Barakah (Hisham Fageeh), is as naive as he is attractive. The Saudi Arabic municipal worker who polices the city has a heart of gold, but remains clueless when it comes to wooing his first girlfriend – especially when she is his polar opposite.

Free-spirited, vocal, and often frustrated, social media darling Bibi Harith (Fatim Al Banawi) faces the conundrum of her fame – she is celebrated for her controversial viewpoints, yet needs to maintain censorship for her safety; her feeds showing only the lower half of her face. The wealthy, stylish advocate is a shackled one – the obvious voice of the freedom activist for the film.

Barakah on the other hand, is your average lad living in the suburb. It comes with an opinionated uncle / friend Da’ash (Sami Hifny) who espouses hysterical dating tips whilst complaining profusely about his own wife, with said wife is equally effusive with her midwife tales. Barakah falls for Bibi’s progressive charms, while she gets drawn by his innocence.

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Barakah meets Barakah is Mahmoud Sabbagh’s social commentary on his country. Filmed entirely in Jeddah, we get to see Saudi Arabia in the context of a light-hearted romantic comedy – a refreshing and effective choice.

A Winner at the Berlin International Film Festival 2016, the film walks the tightrope between story and opinion piece with expert awareness. In several scenes, pixellation occurs (of wine glass or exposed belly) but is hilariously careless and delayed.

Amplifying the ridicule of certain religious restrictions, you will see scenes where Bibi drives a car, but only because she was wearing a mustache for a costume party. She has her bedroom blinds lowered before she starts dancing. Barakah himself is detained at the entrance to a water park because he is a single male. There are frequent scenes of him trying out women’s clothing as he prepares to play Ophelia in an upcoming play, looking nothing like a woman. These scenes bear statements, but are never played up, and quietly speak of the oppression that is in Saudi Arabia. Sabbagh normalises these scenes expertly so that Barakah meets Barakah is never preachy.

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The plight of the unchaperoned lovers trying to fix dating spots without getting caught by the religious police, makes the disillusioned Barakah start questioning his own adherence to his inculcated values. In two segments, Sabbagh treats us to a historical Sauda Arabic collage with archival photographs, showing a much more liberal setting, further driving the point in.

And yet Sabbagh is telling a masterful tale that has dual function – one that at once denies the West of their sometimes biased assertions, while alerting his own people to the situation his beloved country is in, where beautiful things – like the movie couple’s love – should have been allowed to grow. The scenes are captured beautifully, in warm, sandy tones that allow colours to pop. The visuals are a perfect match for the film’s delivery.

The film ends meaningfully, even though Barakah and Bibi never get to fully commit their unlikely story. Barakah meets Barakah satisfies us still with hopeful progress. In one of the last scenes, after their break-up, Barakah visits Bibi at her mother’s baby shower, and incidental or not, presents his gift – of purple flowers.

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