Mahmoud Sabbagh attends the World Premiere of AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE

Mahmoud Sabbagh at AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for BFI

Writer and director Mahmoud Sabbagh talks to Frankly My Dear UK about AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE

Following the success of his debut film BARAKAH MEETS BARAKAH in 2016, Saudi filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh makes a welcome return to the big screen with his second feature, AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE.

Blending dark comedy with irony and wit, AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE tells the story of a 44-year-old housewife Amra who discovers that her retired husband is planning to marry a second, much younger wife after she failed to provide him with a son. The radical Saudi Arabian black comedy exposes conflicted Saudi mores and takes a humorous stab at the contradictory and unequal setups of society.

Following its screening, at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival, writer and director Mahmoud Sabbagh talks to Donna Kelly from Frankly My Dear UK about AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE and his inspiration behind the film.

Frankly My Dear UK (FMD): Can you start by telling us a little bit about AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE?

Mahmoud Sabbagh (MS): AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE is about an educated housewife in her 40s who wakes up to the terrible news that her husband is marrying a younger second wife because he wants to have a son. Throughout the film, she goes through this journey where can either try to accept it or fight it.

FMD: What inspired you to write the film?

MS: I wanted to do a film about women’s struggles and I wanted to do it in an artistic way so I used dark comedy elements like absurdity and narrative components. I also wanted to avoid being sensational by doing something like women’s struggle porn or women’s struggle melodrama, I just wanted to have a film that is dark about a dark subject but in a light spirit.

FMD: The film has a distinct Coen Brother’s feel to it, where you inspired by them and similar filmmaker when writing the film?

MS: Absolutely, they are my first inspiration. Their dark comedy for me was the method I tried to depict in this film. I didn’t want to fully imitate them so I would think of what the Coen Brothers would do for the character – the 40-year-old housewife from Saudi – and how can I make it absurd but not too absurd. That is how I kept writing all the scenes.

FMD: Can you tell us a little more about casting? What were you looking for particularly from the lead actress in this role?

MS: It’s a narrative film and the two more important pillars are characters and production design. We put a lot of effort into those two. Some of the roles had been cast forever. For four/five months I had been casting and auditioning until I found what I imagined in terms of looks and in terms of performance. Alshaima’a [Tayeb] actually came across my mind after I wrote the film, I didn’t write her in mind when I wrote the script but she’s this powerhouse, she has this natural power. She does all this yoga and she has her own collection of natural fragrance, so I asked Alshaima’a, do you want to act and she was like “why not?” She was shortlisted for the role and then I actually picked her and we kept rehearsing for five months, also talking about the character.

FMD: Alshaima’a comes across a very real in the film, even though the storyline and the way in which is presented is very absurd, her character stays quite real. Was that intentional?

MS: There’s a personal element there. The character is personal to her. She’s a lady in her 40s and a mother of two and she’s come across very similar experiences.

FMD: This is your second film that tackles a daring subject but in a light-hearted way, is it important for you as a filmmaker to bring these subjects to the forefront?

MS: Of course. I want a proper dialogue about women’s rights and I wanted to make a gesture, a statement. Also, the film is not only about women, it’s about patriarchy, it’s about misogyny, it’s about an unforgiving society, it’s about stigmatisation, particularly with the housewives and what they would face if they ask for a divorce or if they are divorced. It’s also about male privilege and how they can get away with anything, all of these are issues that we live around and we have to put them in context. There is academia, of course, they do their own stuff, but then there’s art. It’s my way to say OK, they exist but they are wrong and we have to progress.

FMD: Do you feel that film makes it easier to bring these types of subjects in front of an international audience?

MS: Of course. It has a lot of universal crossovers. When I showed this film to a friend, who is from Italy, she was like, “this is exactly like us, we have the holy water, we have that stigmatisation”. It’s very similar.

FMD: What challenges would you say Saudi Arabian filmmakers are facing at the moment?

MS: Everything [laughs]. We don’t have a proper infrastructure, although finally, there is more effort. We live in a period, the beginning of a cultural revolution, where they are opening cinemas all over and are introducing all these new entertainment and Hollywood films in Saudi. There is big talk also about how to make more home-grown local films and I’ve also been vocal asking for more local cinemas and arthouse cinemas. It’s a lovely time to be around, it’s not going to be an easy ride and you still have to still fight. You have to use the proper timing and the proper wording and you have to make alliances, but I do it with passion and I really want my national narratives to come out more and more.

FMD: What’s next for you?

MS: I’m working on my third feature. It’s going to be similar about hierarchies and it’s going to a comedy.

AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE screened at the BFI London Film Festival on 13 October 2018.