Saudi Arabian stand-up comedian, Youtube personality and producer Hisham Fageeh is the lead protagonist of Barakah Meets Barakah, the country's first ever rom-com.
Fageeh garnered international attention in 2013 when he and his production house Telfaz11 released the satirical video "No Woman No Drive", referring to Saudi Arabia's strict laws against women driving. An actual hipster off screen (he studied political science and performed as a stand-up comic in New York), Fageeh tells us about the life of a millenial in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
In the film your character, Barakah, falls for a beautiful girl, but you can't date her because a man and a woman can't be seen together unless they're married. As a young Saudi, is this a situation you’ve ever experienced?
Sometimes we would cross the border to Bahrain so that we could date. Even on the border, they would give us shit.
The sentiments are very real. When my wife and I were dating, we would go to different countries. She was from the eastern province and I was in Riyadh, and sometimes we would cross the border to Bahrain so that we could date. Even on the border, they would give us shit. Jeddah [the setting of the film, and Fageeh's current home] is really easy going compared to the rest of the country. There are so many different cultures; it's a melting pot. Jeddah's cool, but Riyadh is very strict, very dry. To have full freedom, you have to go to a different country. It's only a 45-minute drive, so you can go have dinner, see a movie, come back.
In the movie, you see how different groups coexist but can't really mix: woman and men, but also social classes...
There are different conflicts or different points of tension... it's important that you mention class, because class is a very big thing. It’s a point of contention in society – they can't agree on value systems or even a way of evaluating liberties, because each person lives in a different reality. If you're from a high class, you really have access to everything. You have a private beach house, a private driver – some women say they don't need to drive because they have a driver...
Like the young woman, Bibi, in the film.
Yeah, she has a pretty nice life, and she can even speak to authorities with disgust. She is part of the elite that looks down upon civilian municipality agents, like my character. This is a real thing. You don't have to go by the laws if you're rich, but if you're poor you're a little bit more constrained.
So if you're wealthy, religious constraints don't apply that much? If Barakah had been wealthy, the two would have just met on their private beach, right?
One hundred percent! If her mom had accepted my character’s class, it would have been no problem. They want you to date someone from a specific family which is at the right level. It's a really weird class thing, which I am struggling with in my life. I’m making money and I'm popular – that's a type of currency – so I can hang out with these people, even though I’m not as rich as them. But I don't know if I want to hang out with them. Can I say the F word? F them – because if I wasn't famous, I would just be a poor rat. But now that I'm famous they want to hang out with me, because I'm a social accessory.
The film seems to make the point that it's not just difficult to be a woman in Saudi Arabia; it's difficult for youth in general to be young and enjoy themselves. As a young man, you have no access to women. Barakah is over 20 and still a virgin...
I heard about these women who created a group that supports men because they feel sorry for them – they feel that men are oppressed. I can't really get behind that because men are kings in Saudi Arabia. No matter how poor or stupid or unaccomplished you are, you're still king of your household if you're the man of the house, or the oldest son. If Barakah had a sister, just imagine how much worse her life would be. How the hell is she going to meet somebody? She wouldn't have a government agency car to take her from point A to point B. She couldn't walk around with someone on her own. So it is about privilege, strict power structures. This is something we have to be honest about and very critical and aware of, at the very least, and diplomatically arrive at a solution that accommodates everyone.
From the outside it looks like a schizophrenic society: Bibi is a hip, empowered female, living off her modelling and Instagram celebrity in a place where women are meant to so modest – she can't even show her full face on her vlog!
That's why I really liked this script when I first heard about it. But again, it's this system... because Bibi is from a family where it's okay to show off your face, she has this access. If someone with Bibi's beauty comes from a lower class family, they're probably going to be more religious and less forgiving, so that girl would not have that access. That said, there are true stories of Syrian or Jordanian women who have lived in Jeddah all their lives and they have become these beautiful, successful Instagram models and they're sustaining their families.
So is Instagram such a big thing in Saudi Arabia?
I met my wife on Twitter. We had to go to Bahrain to date.
New media in general! ... I started out on Youtube, and my colleagues on there went from rags to riches, became multi-millionaires. They were smart and worked very hard. It's a little bit harder with the new generation. There is a lot of money going through new media, because there are no cinemas in our country, so it’s either new media or TV. Our public space is through virtual reality. My wife and I met on Twitter. We followed each other and because we liked the way our brains worked, we started flirting. After a year and half, she was in New York for summer vacation while I was finishing my programme at Columbia. We met up and started talking, and it went from there.
In the film there are many references to your parents' generation and how “back then” they enjoyed their youth, women could do more things, life was more interesting. Do you share these feelings?
There is a lot of money going through new media, because there are no cinemas in our country, so it’s either new media or TV.
Totally! I give my dad a lot of shit actually, because he lived a very luxurious and very cushioned life but he did not use that luxury or privilege to create a better foundation for his kids. He just lived it. My dad's a very successful pilot – he would travel for a month. He didn't buy a house until we were all grown up. The fact that we didn't have a house or a driver made us feel suffocated, made us feel that we depended on him. So there was this idea that he was king of the castle: it's him before his kids, whereas I come from a place where if you decide to have kids you better make your life about your kids. Their generation had a lot of oil money. They didn't create any infrastructure. They just worked in corporations, they didn't care about developing and industrialisation. They kept the status quo. They made their money, they had sex, they went to sleep.
In the film, that older generation is directly blamed for their selfishness – how they let the situation deteriorate...
Yeah, and when those liberties started waning, there was not this resistance – like, “hey, fuck you” – it was more like “I'm going to keep my mouth shut because I'm rich and that's okay.” Later on, that affected an entire generation. We feel like we're lost, especially the millennial generation. We lived before internet and after internet and we don't know how to recognise these two worlds. Whereas the younger generation, the 18-year-olds, they're so cool, they're so smart. They know what they want, they know how to speak. They're going to be way better than us.
What's the newest 2.0 generation like?
They grew up with globalisation, with the internet. And people have become more forgiving. When we were growing up, it was bad. It was the ultimate conservative peak. By the time these guys came along, we had a different administration, people were studying abroad, franchises like McDonald's were coming. It's the little logistical stuff that can make a difference. They still belonged to this society, but they had a lot of tools to empower them and to enrich their lives, so that made them a lot more ease with themselves.
So you belong to a kind of lost generation?
I'm going to be selfish and narcissistic, but I 100 percent believe that my generation is a lost generation. Hopefully we can hold on to whatever culture we have and try to articulate that into our artwork. But the next generation – I know because I am mentoring some of these kids – are going to be incredible. Wait till they start making films.
Barakah is a rom-com, yet there wasn't this typical Hollywood happy ending... more like a kind of matter-of-fact resignation that things are the way they are and you can adapt, but you can’t really change them.
We articulated this sentiment in our film when the uncle character tells me, “Don't fight the system, work it.” As I was younger I came back straight from school and I was very much a good, idealistic boy. I would drive between the lines and never switch to another lane without putting my blinker on. Now I drive like an asshole. I would lose an hour of my life every day just being a good citizen, and now I'm working the system. Because I'm popular, I can go and get government work done quickly. I hate that, I am fundamentally opposed to it, but on the other hand, I’d lose my life wasting time being 'idealistic'.
It starts off like a fun, youthful film, but the conclusion is pretty “grown up”.
What's really interesting is the age of marriage in our society now and how you treat adulthood once you’re married. Before, people were married and indoctrinated into adulthood at 18, but now you can be 40 years old and still not be married, you can be free, you can still be youthful. My dad's generation got married really, really young. But I'm almost 30 and I got married just a couple of years ago.
Still only one wife?
[Laughs] Still only one wife. But both of us were married previously. There used to be a stigma around divorced women, like she's “used” or damaged and all that stuff. Now many families have a divorced woman. My dad's father had three wives, but my dad only had one. It's a dynamic, but it's changing.
I guess that's less easy for a woman...
It's more stigmatised... Even female doctors can't get married because the guys that want to marry them are like, “I don't want her to be working. I want her to be at home.” These are things we have to reconcile. My cousin is making more than her husband, and her husband is proud of it. He has his own job, but he's also a stay-at-home dad. I always talk about economy forcing people into behavioural patterns. We've reached a point where we need the women to be working and making money so they can pay rent.
How subversive would this film be considered in Saudi Arabia right now?
I work in satire a lot, so I do a lot of stuff that could have multiple meanings. If you're conservative or liberal or left-wing, you can watch my content and extrapolate different meanings. So I guess someone who is conservative can watch this movie and say, “Oh wow, a romantic comedy where no one kisses, yes!”
Would a conservative person laugh at the jokes about censorship?
I feel like they wouldn't get it. I think they would be so happy to see some pixelated scenes!
The director, Mahmoud Sabbagh, told me he wants to organise public screenings in Saudi Arabia. Do you think that would work?
Yes, of course. It's worthless if we're only going to show it in Europe and the West, right? It's definitely hilarious, beautiful and touching in Arabic. We honestly made it as an Arabic film. We were never writing the dialogue saying “Oh, that's going to be clever for Westerners”. Mahmoud and I did the subtitles together and we would say, “Let's put a joke here, let's put a joke here,” but they get lost in translation.
Do you feel audiences here get it anyway? Was there anything surprising about the way the Berlinale audience reacted?
We discovered that [Haifaa al-Mansour’s] Wadjda [released in Germany in 2013] has set the stage for all Saudi films after that. It was a European production with really incredible distribution. We set out to make something that was not anything like it. We wanted to make something independent, guerilla, grungy to get out our youthfulness, energy and soul. But a lot of people in the audience kept asking, “It showed a different picture of Saudi Arabia in Wadjda – which one is the truth?” I don't see them as exclusive. If you think about them in the grand scheme of things, they have the same message, but one is more forgiving and light-hearted... People have to understand that there's a multiplicity and duality to any society. If I see an American film, that's Hollywood and then I go to South Dakota or North Carolina, they're not going to be the same people that I saw in a Hollywood film.
You lived in the US; as a young, hip, guy, you could live anywhere... so why did you decide to go back and settle in Saudi Arabia?
My wife is even more hip. We think about it, we talk about it. But I think someone's job is a big part of their identity and their lifestyle. Right now I am my own boss, I can travel around the world. And I'm making art, which is the most awesome situation in the world. I am not at a point where I can be an artist anywhere. Maybe this movie will blow up and that will change! I have friends who are conceptual artists, superstars around the world, but they still chose to live in Saudi Arabia, because that's where their inspiration is. There is this symbiotic relationship between who the artist is and where they come from.
Does it motivate you to live and work in a place with restrictive conditions?
I thought about that for a while before I got married. I would tell my wife that I need to be depressed so that I can be funny. Comedians are always depressed.
Not just depression, but also having boundaries...
As creatives we always say when you have restrictions you get more creative, but at the same time, there are limits. Because if I put you in a box and nail the box shut, you're not going to become the most creative person in the world. You're just going to get stuck and die in that box. The system has to have the right amount of restriction and the right amount of freedom for it to work, to be like that golden spot, but if you lose that, it starts becoming choking and suffocating, and then you need to move. I have my days when I feel like I'm suffocated, I won't lie. Right now I'm in a good place, but tomorrow, I might move to a different country.
Barakah Meets Barakah opens at Arsenal on March 9.