Mar del Plata Film Festival

This package was featured in The Cinema Show on Monocle 24 – January 6, 2017.


The final stop on our travel itinerary for today takes us to the coastal city of Mar del Plata in Argentina.

The nation’s most popular beach resort lures visitors with 10 miles of sandy beaches and what might be Latin America’s biggest film festival.

It’s the only cinematic event in the region listed as Category A by the International Federation of Film Producers’ Associations, so it’s up there on an elite list with the likes of Cannes and Berlin.

The 31st edition in November included more than 300 films and a parallel program of talks, workshops and other activities.

Monocle’s Frederick Bernas was at the event and sent this report.


Interview: Mah Sabbagh

Provocateur Interview: Mahmoud Sabbagh

Raconteur, December 2016

“Barakah Meets Barakah” is a romantic comedy for the age of Instagram. Two apathetic millennials – a disenchanted civil servant, Barakah, and a famous video blogger, Bibi – fall in love and try to forge a relationship in a society that does not understand them. But this time, the backdrop is Saudi Arabia, a notoriously conservative country where unmarried men and women are not supposed to mix, and what appears on screen is tightly controlled.

The film’s success has been nothing short of extraordinary. It was submitted as Saudi Arabia’s official entry for the Oscars’ foreign language category and and has become a breakout success at film festivals around the world. Its screenplay, which combines sharp social commentary with cutting wit in a dialogue that flows with sophisticated simplicity, has made a minor star of its director, 33-year-old Mahmoud Sabbagh.

This success is all the more remarkable given that Saudi Arabia has a grand total of zero public cinemas: The government closed them all in 1980, after one was discovered showing a porn flick.

“The film is about freedom of expression, how we evolve as a society and how we address our problems,” says Sabbagh, who had to submit to arduous bureaucratic wrangling over production permits, before shooting the entire movie in 25 days on a budget of $450,000.

It is set in Sabbagh’s native Jeddah, a bustling seaport which he says has undergone a paradigm shift over public space in recent decades. “The idea of public space has always fascinated me – in the last 30 years, the city has become less diverse. You see fewer women, people of colour, younger generations,” he told Raconteur. “But nobody wants to watch a movie about public space, so I had to borrow from classic cinema – boy meets girl – and use the city as a backdrop for their love story.”

Sabbagh is a first-time filmmaker who worked in journalism for over a decade, before deciding that fiction was a more effective tool to illuminate the issues he wanted to explore. After enrolling for a master’s degree at Columbia University’s school of journalism in 2011, Sabbagh took courses in documentary production and immersed himself in the New York cinema scene. “Journalism helped me shape how I look at things,” he said. “It helped me understand what social taboos need to be pushed, and how.”

He shrewdly uses comedy to critique the way young Saudis are expected to behave during interactions with the opposite sex. One memorable moment sees Barakah and Bibi poised to hold hands (a gesture forbidden in public) for the first time on a sheltered rooftop, where they believe they are hidden – before Barakah’s overbearing, nosey aunt suddenly appears to sabotage the romance. Handling delicate issues with a light touch and subtle humour – along with some polished acting – is what makes “Barakah Meets Barakah” so eminently watchable.

It is only second film produced in the Saudi Arabia in its modern history, following “Wadjda,” a drama directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour in 2012. Sabbagh admits he is surprised by the success of “Barakah,” but has not hesitated in capitalising on its growing fame to push Saudi authorities for more support. He dreams of creating a national commission that would fund half a dozen productions every year.

“In the course of five years, we would have a legacy and something to build on,” he says. “We have to do it for us first, and it will resonate internationally – a film and cultural revolution in Saudi Arabia.”

Sabbagh has made significant progress with his lobbying, but there are signs that, while authorities are happy to enjoy the soft-power benefits of an acclaimed film, they may not be quite as accommodating on the home front. “We don’t have a cinema culture, and it’s really tough to change policy,” he says. “I managed to get permission to shoot the movie, and I convinced authorities to back it at the Oscars,” the director says, “but now I’m struggling to get it screened in public.”

Live Cinema Festival
mystifies audiences in Rome


The Cinema Show, Monocle 24 – September 23, 2016


Last week, the 2016 Live Cinema Festival in Rome welcomed performers from throughout Europe to the four-day event.

It began three years ago as a showcase for artists who mix film, video, photography and other images with music or sound – with the addition of a spontaneous live element too.

The result is a rich variety of audiovisual pieces that don’t necessarily fit any conventional cinematic genre, as Monocle contributor Frederick Bernas discovered.