“Phantom Punch: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in Lewiston,” was an exhibition full of events. Since October 18, when the show was inaugurated, Bates has hosted talks, performances, tours, and screenings.
Last Friday, March 17, one last event took place: a screening of the Saudi Arabian movie Barakah Meets Barakah. The comedic drama was premiered at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival and later selected as the Saudi Arabian representative for the Best Foreign Language Film in the 89th Academy Awards. The themes of the movie are timely; discussions of development, generational conflict, tradition, gender, class, culture, imperialism, and Islam are central to understanding the globalized, interconnected, and cross-cultural nature of the twenty-first century.
Barakah Meets Barakah is a nuanced love story. The plot revolves around Barakah Urabi, a municipal law officer in Jeddah, and Bibi, an Instagram celebrity and brand representative in Saudi Arabia. Barakah meets Bibi in an open-air photo shoot. Bibi is not wearing an abaya, the full-length dressing that covers body and hair. Even though it is implied that the photo shoot is against the law, Barakah does not break the party and seems to find interest in the strong, independent, and daring character of Bibi.
In a discussion after the movie, I found that municipal law officers in Saudi Arabia are often stereotyped as killjoys. Interestingly, Barakah breaks this typecast; he is empathetic and lenient in his duty. Similarly, Bibi’s identity is not reducible to the stereotype of futile Instagram star. As the storyline develops, Bibi and Barakah get closer despite the segregations of gender in Saudi Arabia, where unrelated men and women cannot legally meet in public spaces.
Barakah Meets Barakah has its own satirical tone. There is a sense of subtlety in Barakah Meets Barakah – things are not simple and things are not always what they seem to be. Every scene hides an entire story. In the discussion that followed the movie, one audience member mentioned the disguises of the characters that, at some points cross-dress. These costumes are not only a commentary on gender normativity in Saudi Arabia, but perhaps a larger statement about disguise itself.
The movie questions the simplicity of stereotypes. Ultimately, Barakah Meets Barakah blurs the dualism that seems characteristic of foreign conceptions of Saudi Arabia. Bibi, for instance, complicates the idea of generational differences and gender normativity. Sometimes she complies with her guardian’s wills but sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she is powerless in a patriarchal society and sometimes she is the independent character who dresses as a man to drive a luxury car in a country in which women are not allowed to drive.
The very first moments of the movie are about censorship, attesting that the pixilation of some scenes is not a statement about censorship in Saudi Arabia. Throughout the movie, there are several pixelated scenes of women’s faces and bodies in advertisement, alcohol, and lingerie; however, the pixilation is not regular. “If it is censorship, it is sloppy,” said one of the audience members in the discussion that ensued the screening. There were scenes in which alcohol and body parts were not pixelated.
In times of extreme positions and extremism, Barakah Meets Barakah reveals the grey areas that have no name, the intermediaries in a larger continuum.
It is challenging to capture in words the depth of Barakah Meets Barakah. Throughout the movie, there were moments in which the plot would delicately enter the realm of magic realism. One of the side stories in the film shows a person carrying pink cotton candy on the streets. In recent decades, Saudi Arabia made efforts to restrict commerce to private spaces, directly impacting the nameless character.
Barakah never gets to stop that person, who magically disappears before his eyes. The peddler seemed to simply carry joy with him. “His disappearing is symbolic of the little things that made people happy,” theorized Leena Nasser, a Bates alumna and Saudi citizen. The complexity, the longing for the past, and the melancholy coexist with comedy and love.
As we say goodbye to “Phantom Punch: Contemporary Art from Saudi Arabia in Lewiston” and to some of the little things that make us happy, Barakah Meets Barakah teaches us to think beyond the imaginary boundaries of dualism. It leaves us with the hope that tradition inspires innovation and vice versa. With every beginning comes a new end; it may be time to admit that beginnings and endings coexist.