The Review/Interview/

Uncensored: Hisham Fageeh and Fatima Al-Banawi

The actors of Barakah Meets Barakah on life in Saudi Arabia, the importance of art and social media, and challenging gender expectations

by Ikoro Huggins-Warner
Feb 16, 2017 @ 12:00am

Saudi Arabia’s first-ever romantic comedy, Barakah Meets Barakah challenges western narratives and representations of Muslim-majority countries that we commonly see in popular media, while also providing a humorous, poignant commentary on censorship. Comedian Hisham Fageeh stars as Barakah, a mild-mannered civil servant who runs up against societal restrictions when he sets out to romance Bibi (Fatima Al-Banawi), a popular Instagram personality and the outspoken daughter of a wealthy couple. The two hit it off, but finding an appropriate location to meet face-to-face and share even a moment together proves challenging due to Saudi Arabia’s strict public policies.

Rooted in the everyday experiences of young Saudis, Barakah Meets Barakah perfectly captures the spirit of TIFF Next Wave and we are so excited to have the film as part of our festival lineup on Saturday, February 18. We chatted with Fatima and Hisham about the contemporary status of art and culture, the millennial experience, and provoking traditional gender roles.

How did this project come about? How did you get attached to the film?

HISHAM FAGEEH: I had just resigned from my job as Head of Content at a production company called Telfaz 11. We did mostly shorts, web series, vignettes and comedy sketches. I left because of creative differences and the director talked to me about a movie that would be done gonzo style — of course the movie idea was different back then — but the philosophical aspect of it really was the enticing part because I was so interested in this idea of public space, something that fundamentally affects us as far as our civic identity, how we see ourselves, how we see each other. So that was really what got me interested. It was mostly philosophical, pretty dry, and then because my background is in comedy, once I started doing table reads and indirectly or directly doctoring it, it became more and more comedic. I’d known Fatima for years – we had done theatrical events together. She had been running something called “Theatre of Oppressed” so I had faith in Fatima. We just sat together and got to know each other essentially via rehearsals for a few months. We practiced long enough that we got to a point where we could even perform each other’s parts.

FATIMA AL-BANAWI: My undergraduate degree in Psychology and my Master's degree in Theological Studies have exposed me to the study of varied human behaviour and social phenomenon, and my research and writings were focused on some segments of my society. There was an apparent underrepresentation and often a misrepresentation of my society, even at Harvard. Thus, throughout my time there, I tried to engage in constructive conversations to transmit an image about my home. However, what could I have said to talk on behalf of Saudi's entire population — almost 30 million people? After graduation, it became important that I produce content and facilitate engagement in a creative way, and that became possible when I received a message from an old friend of mine, Mahmoud Sabbagh (director and writer of Barakah Meets Bakarah), with a script that overcomes the victimizing narrative of Saudi youth, and with an invitation for dialogue. I embarked on this journey believing in the power of art and storytelling for collective growth and dialogue.

What were some of the challenges shooting in Saudi Arabia, specifically around the use of public space?

HF: It was a pretty smooth run, we were really lucky to have a team that was super qualified and they all fundamentally believed in the movie, so everybody put their best foot forward. The hardest part was the weather. For me, specifically, just sitting in a car with no air conditioner, and having to perform in the middle of the summer, over and over again, that little car heated up – it felt like a tiny Easy-Bake Oven. We even got stopped by the police to ask, “Hey, do y’all need extras?” People were super friendly, we really lucked out.

FAB: This film is a feature, but it’s ... certainly [also] a documentary that depicts our movement in the available public spaces in Jeddah, working with light and darkness, and with crowds and cars. The film's frame and cinematography also depicts the stagnant exteriors versus multilayered interiors of Jeddah. I wouldn't say they were challenges, but they certainly required more planning and fast shots. One of the challenges was related to the heat of October in Jeddah.

Barakah Meets Barakah is billed as Saudi Arabia’s first romantic comedy — how was the film received within Saudi Arabia and internationally?

HF: Well, unfortunately, we don’t have any cinemas or theatres here in Saudi Arabia, so nobody’s really seen it. We’re waiting for distribution deals for people to finally see it. Internationally, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. I can’t get over how loving people are and [that they] feel like they identify with the movie. I love the movie, so that’s always a good thing to know that I see eye-to-eye with people [laughs] and people appreciate the same things that I do. There is an element of novelty; I do believe that people don’t see our country, so the fact that they get to see it and it’s a little bit light-hearted... I think it’s a combination or nice little marriage there where everyone comes out happy.

FAB: I was struck by the audiences’ laughter; different audiences laughed at different scenes. The international audience, mostly westerners, laughed at certain scenes such as the film’s subtle and witty commentary on censorship and gender interplay, and warmed up at romantic gestures and the couple’s failed attempts at dating. The local Arab and Saudi audiences laughed at the humour and the traditional jokes made by locals, and were saddened by parts that shed light on their daily lives and struggles. This audience connected because the film speaks their language, their dialect, and shows their homes and communities. A friend of mine, after the film's Dubai premiere, asked me to give him some time as the film was too emotional for him. I was, however, ultimately happy to see that the film spoke to all audiences from varied cultures and age groups, thus allowing for a conversation to unfold about Saudi, the millennial generation, and social infrastructures. Of course, there were Saudis who disagreed with the portrayed image of Saudi and I would certainly encourage them to portray their own lives and shed light on their own societies in yet another film. All of us are Saudi, yet not all of us are the same.

As actors, what appealed to you about this script? Do you think Barakah Meets Bakarah is a coming-of-age film?

HF: [In the film] there’s a conversation between my character and his father, and without spoiling the movie, it’s essentially a conversation between two generations. Saudi Arabia is particular in having a super young society — 75 per cent of the population is under the age of 35. If you talk about the information age, globalization, and the natural changes that happen within a value system, you’re going to see differences and you’re gonna see struggle, and anxiety, and neuroses. Specifically, my people, as in Saudis, identify with [the film] because it compares Saudi Arabia to Saudi Arabia, and there isn’t that double standard of comparing us to someone else. There’s this idea that we feel like we are going backwards or regressing in a way, and that feels unfair to us, so it’s just us voicing that angst. To go back to [the idea of] the information age and globalization, “millennials” tend to identify with similar things and on a very human level: we all live for love, and on a biological level, we look for survival.

FAB: I liked that the script goes beyond an apologetic and victimizing narrative, which I often experience watching international and local films depicting Saudi Arabia, the Arab World, or Muslims and Muslim communities in general. Instead, Barakah’s script is funny for us local Saudis, and equally so for the international audience. It's a coming-of-age film because the millennial generation is one that shifted from comparison, complaining, and victimization toward being a proactive initiator of dialogue. We create from our limitations.

Some of the most hilarious, but also subversive moments in the film come from Barakah taking on the role of Ophelia in an all-male production of Hamlet — how does the film play around with gender stereotypes/roles?

HF: During one of the Q&As at TIFF '16, we talked about alpha and beta males, and obviously Barakah is definitely more beta. We wanted to talk about gender fluidity and the convergence that happens with the natural segregation of sexes. There’s a whole gender and orientation code that happens with those new settings, and then somebody asked what was it that Barakah identified [with] – was there an allusion to any type of preference or orientation, and again we talked about these ideas of cis-gender, identity, or a binary system that happens in the West [that] doesn’t necessarily happen in the Middle East ... we’re talking about an entirely different set of norms, taboos, and regulations. I met the cast of Orange Is The New Black a few months ago and I told them that a lot of people can identify or relate to the setting [in the show] because sometimes Saudi Arabia feels like that.

FAB: Having attended an all-female school in Jeddah, cross-dressing was a very normalized and familiar format in school plays. As I grew, I came to know that it was normalized in ancient Greek art and theatre. On other occasions, or more precisely in public space in Saudi, cross-dressing is almost a taboo and might lead to serious measures. Playing around those lines and this contradiction is one of the powerful moments. Barakah's character in the film is shy and naive in front of Bibi's rebellion and daring voice. One must realize, watching Barakah Meets Barakah, that the protagonists in the film have an unusual, or perhaps, unexpected representation of gender and its relation to class and privilege. Bibi is the daughter of a high-class family, and thus has access and certain privileges that her counterpart protagonist does not have, although he is the Saudi man. Barakah is naïve, helpless, and with fewer privileges than Bibi, although she too is trying to find herself in the face of social expectations and pressures; her struggles are diluted in the fluidity, privileges, and beauty she portrays, making her, perhaps, intimidating.

What’s it like for young people living in Saudi today?

HF: Honestly, there are 30 million people [in Saudi Arabia] so you can probably find so many different opinions and positions on this specific thing. Some people tend to be more traditional, depending on what background they came from and how they reconcile that background or their current relationship to their family or culture, and other people tend to be more “Westernized.” It really depends and changes from situation to situation. Our city, Jeddah, is way more progressive because it’s a melting pot. The religious pilgrimage is in Mecca, [and] Jeddah is the closest city to Mecca as far as a seaport or an airport ... [Mecca] has been the capital and the intersection for trade and commerce for a few thousand years... it predates Islam.

How true-to-life is the film’s representation of the challenges surrounding social media use?

HF: Again, it really changes from city to city, family to family. You can find people that are like Bibi; they're Instagram models that show their faces and their bodies, and there’s a whole spectrum of how revealing or conservative their clothing is, depending on what class they’re from, what nationality... there are so many different elements. [There's] this idea of privilege; Barakah’s status as beta-male and Bibi’s status as female, but of the upper echelon of society, [which] gave them an even playing field. But at the end of the day, male privilege comes through — it’s a commentary about many facets of power. Social media, it’s a big thing. We’re number one in the world per capita for YouTube, Twitter, and we’re coming up on Snapchat. It’s a very real thing. My wife and I met on Twitter.

FAB: Social media is a double-edged sword. As much as social media had crafted a possibility for a public space in Saudi Arabia — where people from all sexes can overcome the physical segregated realities — Bibi, for example, still embodied the Saudi girl who lives in a virtual reality, where fame, likes, and followers make her long for intimacy, warmth, and simple pleasures. As much as some try to build a bridge between those parallel worlds, the virtual and the real, many of today’s generation have remained stuck behind the imagined warmth on their cold screens. With this said, social media had certainly crafted the foundations for dialogue between people from different backgrounds, sexes, and classes, and to a big extent, it also normalized the female public presence.

One of my favorite moments is the montage sequence when Barakah compares Saudi Arabia today with that of his uncle’s generation — it's one of the moments in the film that challenges western notions and representations of the country. What are your hopes for the future of art and cinema in Saudi Arabia?

HF: There are a lot of extremely talented people. There are world-class artists already in my country and there have been for at least a decade now. I hope that the visual arts, more specifically film and television can catch up, because that’s where I’m invested, [jokes] so that’s my own selfish needs coming through. I’m optimistic; right now we’re at this sweet spot where there’s an intersection of restriction and ability so we’re creative to an extent, but if it doesn’t become more easy-going, I think we’ll begin to see the arts deteriorate more and more. I hope that the authorities go through with putting an infrastructure [in place] so we can see artistic institutions for the performing and visual arts — we need this, because we won’t survive and we won’t be able to sustain our growth as an industry otherwise.

Any advice for emerging artists and creators interested in thinking about art as a social and political tool?

HF: It’s how you garner your following or how you galvanize, depending on what type of artist you are. If you brand yourself as an artist who is silly and ironic, it’ll be a lot harder to be taken seriously. I believe in constantly reinventing to enrich [yourself] as an artist. Being socially aware of your connotations in your work and your responsibilities and being hyper-alert of your privilege, whether that has to do with your race, or your gender, or even your passport — [these] are huge responsibilities and I think a lot of people sadly are not aware. Sometimes you can be in a medium that is taken a lot less seriously, like someone who is a sketch comedian compared to someone who is a satirical news commentator... those will be looked at differently, but your efficacy can go a long way depending on how woke you stay, how diverse your writing team is, how honest and authentic you are with how you approach your work and your methodologies. Just try to stay honest and constantly get multiple opinions and perspectives on the world you participate in because it’s super important.

FAB: The lesson I learned this year was to trust the process. It's difficult, but once you have an idea for something new or something nonexistent, begin and then trust it and its process.

What’s next for you both? What’s your next project?

HF: For us both, we just wanna be friends and not hate each other! That’s the goal after doing such a long, strenuous project like this; it tends to take a lot out of you, and the success and the expenses of it all just catches up with you. So I’m lucky to have someone like Fatima being my partner in crime. She’s someone who’s honest and has a good heart, and always has good intentions. I’ve already shot my television series that I wrote and produced myself. I’m in post-production and just working through all the bureaucracy and the process of getting it onto a corporate television station. I’m getting a lot of motivation from the news to do my next project and hopefully we can cross between the East and the West in that next project.

FAB: I established a storytelling platform in Saudi during the same time I acted in the film. The Other Story Project began on September 24, 2015. The project collects real life stories and personal experiences from people who are locals of a city or who happen to be visiting for work, family, or leisure. The first cycle of story collection has been taking place in Jeddah. The story writers are people that come from different social classes, occupations, locations, and ages. They are fighters, coffee lovers, divorcees, and travelers; they are hopeful, inspirational, and adventurous.

All the stories in the story collection are anonymous, handwritten, and no longer than a single page … symbolizing the human writer and his or her mood, emotions, scribbles, and speed, and preserving the individuality of each anonymous story. The Other Story Performance Series, The Other Story Book, and The Other Story Podcast are all works in progress growing from this project, and they all enter the social arena through storytelling to highlight our shared humanity, and to record the eclectic voices of a place in a time in history. The first performance piece [happened] this month, and the energy and vibes from the audience in Saudi was overwhelming, humbling, and definitely encouraging. Here’s to more performances, more stories, and more art.

Ikoro Huggins-Warner is Youth Learning Coordinator at TIFF.

Barakah Meets Barakah screens as part of the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival, running February 17 to 19 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.