I wrote this after experiencing festival stages and audiences' questions in 2016
Cinema is one of the many ways that societies can employ to breakdown social misconceptions. Other tools, such as books, intercultural dialogue forums, formal education, travel, and natural human interactions, can be combined to complement the process. These tools can simultaneously shed light on varied social representations, realities, and forms of being, and allow for a deeper realization of our shared humanity. I have learned so much from watching films myself. Since childhood, films offered a panoramic view about the world, helped form a connection between myself - a person laying on a sofa in a living room in the Western Region of Saudi Arabia - to people across the map, they triggered my curiosity to ask and be interested, and facilitated an exchange of traditions and cultures.
Tracing Barakah Meets Barakah’s participation in about 20 different international film festivals in 2016, being present for about 10 screenings of them, and participating in the Q&A segments with a live audience in those 10, I noticed the surfacing of a thread of questions and a stream of thought despite how far the film crew travelled or how close to home we were. Questions often varied, while some reappeared in all cities, on all stages, and from audiences in Berlin, Toronto, Florence, Dubai, London, Mumbai, Mexico, Calgary, Cairo, Adana, Vancouver, Bogota, Carthage, and Sydney.
Are you Saudi?
This question is often deeply rooted and tied to an assumption: ‘You don’t look Saudi!’ For some reason, answering ‘Yes, I am Saudi’ would not suffuse for any of the inquiries, so I rejoin with a question instead, an invitation or an initiation of a dialogue: ‘And how does looking Saudi ‘look like’?’
With a population of about 4 million, Jeddah is the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, after the capital Riyadh. Some accounts convey that about 3000 years ago, a group of fishermen came and settled in Jeddah, my home city, after they completed their fishing trips in the Red Sea. Jeddah, a celebrated seaport, had preserved this status for centuries now, and received spices and drugs from ships that sailed between India and Europe. In 647 AD, the city experienced a historical transformation when it was allocated the getaway for Muslims to the two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Medina, and particularly so for millions of pilgrims arriving to perform the annual Pilgrimage.
Since then, the city has been famous for being quick to respond to changes in the trade and geopolitical consumer behavior. The people of the city have been integral to this character; they too are thus famous for being diverse, adaptive, and forward looking.
With this said, ‘looking Saudi’ is inclusive of being from a city that overlooks the flamboyant corals nurtured in the womb of the Red Sea, and shadowed by the desert heat and rocky mountains. Looking Saudi is inclusive to being from a city that sustains these two notions and embraces the world between its arms.
Is the film an accurate depiction of life in Saudi Arabia?
We have been brought up hearing stories and learning about our history and heritage from some of the greatest storytellers of all times; they happen to be amongst our very own grandparents and family members. However, due to the absence of local and regional productions, we have also been accustomed to the representations, and often misrepresentations, of foreign productions, including its media.
Due to the recognized dearth of representative work emerging from the region outwards about Saudi Arabia, the surfacing ones are assumed to be comprehensive of an entire population. This deduction puts aside the varied social narratives, the impacts of schools of thought, dialects, and geographical locations on people, and the complexities of their specifics.
A large group of Saudi students attended Barakah Meets Barakah’s final screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016. During the Q&A segment, one of them took the microphone, introduced himself and his nationality (Saudi) and pointed out that the film he just watched was not an accurate representation of his self. There was an immediate heaviness in the theatre space followed by shatters of small talk. That is to say that an expectation of representation is evident amongst both, locals and internationals. The film crew took turns to respond to this remark. However, what was elevating, probably to the Canadian and Western audience too, is the organic dialogue that unfolded between other Saudis in the audience about the intimacy they felt with the characters, the bravery of the production, and the likelihood of generalization due to reasons considered above.
The casts' response to this gentleman included points from the following: I wonder if any single film is capable of telling a story of an entire city, a country, or a people in 60, 88, or even 180 minutes. In 2016, Saudi Arabia recorded a population of more than 30 million inhabitants. Barakah Meets Barakah is a production that fully considers the multifaceted nature of Saudi’s social infrastructure; however, it tells a story and presents a hand-full of intersecting issues; all real and accurate in their given time and context. Furthermore, since the film is entirely shot in Jeddah, all the film’s behind-the-scene shots are honest and authentic depictions of life in the city, and all the lived experiences throughout the 25 days of shooting make a potential documentary about its people and its real and vibrant millennial generation.
Is Bibi an actual representation of Saudi women?
When I first read the description of Bibi’s character in Barakah Meets Barakah, I was uncertain about playing the role. I boxed the character in the image of a beautiful fashionista, and was afraid that being portrayed as such would package me in a similar style. I was not able of letting go of my academic background and social impact work, and thus underestimated her character as a social influencer. Nevertheless, when I agreed and began rehearsing and getting to know her better, I came to understand Bibi’s underlying power struggles, her vulnerable self, social messages, and both, her wit and charisma. I learned to appreciate her coming to be and her coming of age, and felt the responsibility to master and represent that on the big screen.
I accepted the role because I saw several of her in my own society, and I too again, often judged them. I saw her relevant, real, and close, and realized that not only will she be relatable to the local audience, but to the general millennial generation all over the world. She could be the bridge that authorizes a conversation to unfold between generations and nations. She did not fail me, and I hope I did her justice.
I would like to think that people liked Bibi, or at least empathized with her. I have heard from some that she annoyed them, and I must say that that was part of her character. One would 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 to certain privileges that her counterpart protagonist does not have, although by all means a Saudi man. Barakah is naïve, helpless, and with fewer privileges than Bibi. Thus, although she too is trying to find herself in the face of social expectations and pressures, her struggles are diluted with the fluidity, privileges, and beauty she portrays, making her perhaps, intimidating.
Moreover, 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 still embodies the case of a Saudi girl who lives in the 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.
My preconception of Bibi is real; and even she is aggravated by it. When Bibi explains conceptual art to the novice municipality employee, Barakah, and he is amazed by her ability to communicate it so eloquently, she reveals this prevalent notion as she complains: “I’m a bimbo and my place is fashion, is that so? Look, my new friend Barakah, you can take all my likes and followers, just put me on a theatre stage!”
If we listen carefully to Bibi’s remarks, we can listen to a generational discourse and to the upshots of our own internalized expectations, preconceptions, and stereotypes.
Does Bibi represent you as a Saudi woman?
Bibi represents me not because I am a Saudi woman, but because like her, I am part of this millennial generation and part of Saudi Arabia’s population that had identified, in 2016, a median age of 28. I relate to Bibi because I understand the extent of impact our social expectations and imbedded preconceptions have on budding talents and creative expressions.
Acting for me is a conversation. One of the people I had the honor of speaking to at the Cairo International Film Festival was the German actor and director Sebastian Schipper, who won in six different categories for his film Victoria, including best film and best direction, and who flew to Cairo to watch our film. I told Sebastian that I could be a very shy person, not because of the camera, but simply intimidated by the people in the space around the camera. However, I get this intrinsic responsibility that makes me forget about myself and puts me in the heart and body of the character. Sebastian later reassured me: “It’s good to be shy. If you are not shy, you are then too big for the camera.” In my social field of study, this could be translated to: One must be shy to be capable of unconditionally embracing others.
I act because I believe we have an obligation to tell stories. I act because I was myself impacted by stories. I act because science had proven that storytelling triggers in the mind of the listeners the same parts triggered in the mind of the narrator. I act because by doing so we are connecting to characters otherwise distant from us. I act as an attempt to become close to you.