Film Africa closes with Barakat (which the film tells us is an Arabic word meaning “blessings”). Dealing with family coming together for the Islamic festival Eid al-Fitr, it is an often contemplative work, sold as dealing with love, loss, forgiveness and acceptance.
Vinette Ebrahim is Aisha Davids, head of a deeply fractured family, all dealing with the loss of her husband. The film commences with her memories of years past, as the family would gather around the table for meals, and time passing, as we see glimpses of family conflict. This short opening montage, complete with slow, mournful piano, ends with Aisha sat alone at the same table.
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As we move into the first act, any thoughts that this is a dour work, dealing solely with grief, disappears immediately. We learn that the bereavement was two years ago, and while at home with a friend, Aisha is visited by her new partner, Albertus (a chiropractor), who proposes to her.
The tone is light, and the dialogue amusing; as Aisha explains the glow that the new suitor has given her, only to be told ‘that’s the menopause!’, and to be asked why she wants to waste the remaining time she has left on a man! Further complaints centre on his not being a part of the Muslim faith. It soon becomes clear that the family know nothing of his existence; hence the aforementioned plan to bring them home for Eid al-Fitr, and to tell them at that time.
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We are introduced, in turn to her family, with four sons: surly businessman Zaid (Mortimer Williams); hen-pecked and cowardly expectant father Zunaid (Joey Rasdien); Nur (Danny Ross) – seemingly a messed-up womaniser not unused to getting into embarrassing scrapes; and friendly teacher/lecturer Yaseen (Keeno Lee Hector), as the film switches between (predominantly) Afrikaans and English. The family are in diverse locations, with lives and careers of their own – to wildly differing levels of success. Even getting them to commit to coming home is a challenge.
It is clear that this a family that once shared a lot of love; but have somewhat lost their way in terms of interpersonal relationships. Director Amy Jephta is able to draw distinctions between the family members, painting an accurate picture of their personalities in just a few cross-cut minutes of screen time. This short selection of scenes of the family members going about their lives is played light and funny, as is the section where she has to resort to tall tales to ensure attendance. All of this is accompanied by a light, playful, jazz-influenced score, complementing nimble editing.
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After an amusing misunderstanding over their mother’s news, the film settles into an exploration of their feelings about a parent moving on with their life. Albertus is a kind, considerate man, clearly both in love with Aisha and sensitive to the feelings of the family. Yet the sons, who have a comedic chemistry amongst them, liken him to a terrorist as they consider how to negotiate their mother out of entering a new marriage. It is very much a case of the women are the grown-ups, whilst the men are the petulant children who cannot accept what is happening.
For all of the froth and humour, Barakat is a work pushing to uncover difficult truths about the ways family grow and – often – fracture. It examines the bonds we share, and looks at how far we have jurisdiction over our family members. The boys feel they have a right to protect their father’s memory, by freezing their still-vital mother in amber.
They talk to Albertus – a seasoned, educated white-collar professional – as though he is taking a school entrance exam. They attempt to insult his dignity, while merely diminishing their own. Overlaying this is an examination of the potential for differing denominations of faith to exclude and separate us, rather than it bonding the human race; in this case, the family use their faith as a weapon to attempt to exclude a good man from their mother’s life, all while demonstrating distinctly hypocritical behaviours in their own lives.
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Barakat is light, funny, generally well-paced (at 103 minutes), thought-provoking, yet accessible to all. It is fair to say that the first 50 minutes or so of the film are the most engaging, though the film’s themes – particularly acceptance (prompted by the boys starting to find their own personal perspectives) – really come to the fore in the second half of the running time. It can be viewed as a comedy, a family drama, (sometimes) a farce, an examination of faith and family, or even a look at nature vs nurture, as the family have diversified into deeply different people, yet become remarkably similar in their preoccupations and behaviours once they get back under the same roof.
Finally, it is a look at the natureof love: Aisha and Albertus both risk their own happiness in service of their love for others. A substantial work, from a clearly talented filmmaker, and one who demonstrates an ability to cover thematically strong material in a breezy manner, Barakat is the strongest of the three films covered by this site from the Film Africa festival and, as such, it is strongly recommended.
Barakat is screening with live director Q&A on Sunday 8th November at 6pm, and is available through BFI Player and on Facebook. BFI Player offer a free 14-day trial, so you can watch the Film Africa 2020 films for free without commitment.