Berlin Hidden Gems: 'Barakah Meets Barakah' Is Love, Saudi Arabian Style

Barakah Meets Barakah Still 1 - Fatima AlBanawi and  Hisham Fageeh  - H 2016
Courtesy of El-Housh Productions

Mahmoud Sabbagh's rom-com playfully examines dating in a world with strict rules about how men and women interact.

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl. So goes the standard structure of most rom-coms.

Things get a little more complicated, however, when you set the story in Saudi Arabia, a country with a few additional stumbling blocks when it comes to unmarried boys and girls hooking up with one another. So lies the basic outline for Barakah Meets Barakah (Barakah Yoqabil Barakah), an unlikely love story from first-timer Mahmoud Sabbagh set in the port city of Jeddah.

"I wanted to make a film about the disenfranchised youth, the millennials, who are more voiceless and have less political representation, less economic opportunities," says Sabbagh, who, like many emerging Saudi creatives, cut his teeth making YouTube videos. "It’s also about censorship, the layers of censorship and authority."

The story sees twentysomething civil servant Barakah run into Bibi, an online star with a hugely popular vlog. But where other rom-coms might follow the hilarious consequences of the would-be-couple’s various interactions, the ever-watchful eye of Saudi’s rather strict authorities — coupled with any unchaperoned public meeting being strictly prohibited — makes even getting to the first date a near-impossible endeavor.

"It’s a love story against the odds," says Sabbagh, who points out that, hindered by such restrictions, youngsters have turned to smartphones and social media in a rather big way, with many blossoming relationships played out in cyberspace.

And in casting his romantic male lead, the filmmaker turned to one of country’s rising social media stars. Hisham Fageeh, alongside his friends Fahad Albutairi and Alaa Wardi, became an Internet sensation in 2013 with his song "No Woman, No Drive," which used Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” to mock the notorious female driving ban. The YouTube video racked up some 13 million views and helped show the world that, despite what many might think about their country’s seemingly harsh exterior, Saudi Arabians aren’t averse to laughing at themselves.

But aside from the comedic elements at play, Sabbagh says he hopes to use his film as a standard-bearer during what has become an interesting period in the kingdom's history.

"There is this notion of change in Saudi now; we have a younger leadership, and it seems this change has been coming at faster pace than ever," says Sabbagh, adding that he’s hoping Barakah Meets Barakah has a domestic screening despite the lack of theaters (although there’s no official ban, there aren’t any cinemas in the country). "We profit from this new political climate. The kids over there are doing a great job, and we’d like our film to be a symbol of change and growing opportunities for the youth."