South Africa: 'Barakat' Holds Cape Muslim Culture Up to the Light

Extraordinary South African and African Films Come To Encounters

Directed by Amy Jephta and told in Afrikaaps, the film is a layered, intimate and infinitely human story about family that provides a powerful counter-narrative to Muslim stereotypes.

As children, our mothers would pack small plates of food and send us off to deliver them to our neighbours. Savouries like samoosas and daltjies, sweet things or anything we were eating that night, would be shared. This offering is referred to as a barakat, originating from the word barakah, which means blessing in Arabic. Amy Jephta's new film takes its name from this communal tradition.

The film centres on Muslim humanity and is one of the first to depict the Cape Muslim community in all its rich diversity, heritage and culture.

Set during Ramadan, the film's release was timed in South Africa for the day of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the film premiered first in the United States last year, and at festivals in the United Kingdom and Australia, winning awards along the way.

Through familiar characters, Barakat tells the intimate story of a widow who finds love and the repercussions for her family. Matriarch Aisha Davids (Vinette Ebrahim) wishes to remarry, but has difficulty gaining acceptance and blessings from her four sons, who are still grappling with the death of their father. The pitch-perfect casting sees Joey Rasdien, Mortimer Williams, Keeno Lee Hector and Danny Ross in the roles of brothers, with additional performances brightened by Quanita Adams, Bonnie Mbuli, Leslie Fong and June van Merch.

For the filmmakers, it was important to create a relatable story of loss and love that shifts perspectives.

"Being coloured people in the film and TV industries in South Africa, we were frustrated with always being portrayed in a certain way that was so removed from the realities of our everyday lives," says Jephta of the stereotypes of gangsterism and violence. "There was very rarely an amplification of the beauty of our existence, and that family is such an integral part of our community."

The beauty of Islam

The story was personal for Jephta, who has Muslim ancestry. "Those kinds of cultural practices were always the part that spiritually I felt the most connected to. Even though I'm not a practising Muslim, it is the culture that raised me." Celebrations of Labarang (Eid) with her aunts and uncles are fond recollections. "A lot of my best memories and warmth associated with that side of my family that I always return to, is like a comfort and a soft place. That part of my identity is the part that I really cherish and wanted to make something that honours it."

The film humanises the beauty of Islam and portrays the community in a positive light. "We are busy gearing up for something that is really celebratory about the joy and the beauty of being Muslim ... but then there is this counter-narrative that is really heartbreaking," she says, referring to the film's opening coinciding with the attacks on Muslim worshippers in Palestine.

Many in the Western world associate Muslims with violence, "but there is something about film's power to present a counter-narrative ... We have an obligation as artists to change that as much as we can," says Jephta. "You don't always have to be hard with the rhetoric or the soapboxing. It's in gentle ways as well, which is to just put humanity at the forefront ... and hope that you change a few people's hearts ... I think that's what art can do."

There are several reasons the film is set around Ramadan, says Jephta. It is a convenient storytelling device, a reason for a family to gather as is the norm for Eid. But it is also about showing practices that are usually behind closed doors. "We wanted to illuminate as much as we could about what the practice of Ramadan actually is, and how difficult it is and what you're struggling and wrestling with, and what you actually do around the table."

Jephta grew up between Bishop Lavis and Mitchells Plain, where she was exposed to most of the traditions she highlights in the film. It was shot on location in Athlone, Gatesville and the surrounding Cape Flats area, depicting a side of Cape Town that is rarely seen on film. The main house featured in the film is in the suburb of Rylands and is filled with items that represent a typical Cape Muslim family.

"There was just something about that house that felt like a home that we didn't have to dress up too much. The home had those stories in the walls already."

The film celebrates Cape Muslim diversity and culture in layered ways, something Jephta says is "rich" and "ripe for cinematic interpretation". "There's just so many nuances and so much about living Muslim in Cape Town specifically that people don't understand." For instance, the film depicts the traditional maankykers (moon watchers) ritual that the Crescent Observers' Society holds annually on the Sea Point beachfront for the new moon sighting and Eid announcement.

"I think about how much of this community is still so invisible, despite the relation of Islam to the anti-apartheid movement. And how the Muslim community has always been a refuge for so many enslaved peoples, and how that whole history has almost been erased. It was to just hold people up to the light, people that are a very assured part of the fabric of being South African," says Jephta.

Afrikaaps

Barakat is the first film to be made entirely in Afrikaaps, a mix of English, Dutch, Arabic, Malay and Afrikaans that is spoken by Muslims and mixed communities in the Cape. "This way of speaking is very rarely legitimised on screen," says Jephta. "It comes from the mouths of certain kinds of characters usually, like the Cape Flats gangster. But we're making an archive for this language to exist, not just in the written form, which is miles ahead of television and film in this country."

Considering that the Cape Muslim community has been around for centuries, their lack of representation in cinema is surprising. "We're also the first generation that is maybe more radically insistent with our experiences and putting it into the popular culture and being like, this is how we speak. This is what we sound like."

Sensitivity and being as accurate as possible to the lived experience of the Cape Muslim community was important for the filmmakers. This includes details inside the house, the food that is eaten and the words that are used. The production team worked closely with the community and cultural advisers to create authenticity, detailing prayers and boeka (fast-breaking) among other aspects. Even local figure Imam Yusuf Pandy makes an appearance.

The filmmakers regularly consulted their mostly Muslim crew. "They could correct us ... I was constantly checking in, like, I know you're doing the lights right now, but is this what your Labarang table would look like? It was constant collaboration," says Jephta.

"I didn't want to create this for the gaze of an international audience ... The story is, first of all, for the people who it's about, to be able to see themselves, recognise themselves, feel like they have been represented in a dignified manner, feel that they are seen ... It was very important that the gaze was from the inside and we were looking at each other."

Soundtrack and theatre

Cape pianist and composer Kyle Shepherd was Jephta's first choice to create the sound for the film. It is a meaningful choice as Shepherd did the sound for theatre production Afrikaaps (2010), which later became the documentary. Both changed the narrative around the language and culture.

"The moment I spoke to him about this and explained it, and asked what do you hear the sound to be? He immediately went to, 'It's orchestral. It's violins. It's big and sweeping,'" says Jephta.

Shepherd's music has always paid homage to Cape Town and he lived in Rylands for a time, too. "He saw the community the way I wanted to see it," says Jephta. "So there is beauty and finesse. It's large and epic ... Kyle knows the sound of this world inside and out, and because of that he didn't have to be obvious about it."

The film is an impressive directorial debut. Jephta's previous work has been in writing and one short film. She co-wrote Barakat over three years with friend and collaborator Ephraim Gordon, who also produced the film, and whom she had worked with previously in theatre and film.

"Coming from a theatre background has influenced my storytelling," she says. "It is a strong sense of collaboration, that you're not the only voice in the room, and how to be able to elaborate and draw stories out of actors and to mould performances is something that I could only have gathered with theatre."

With beauty and warmth, Barakat tells a story about forgiveness and acceptance, and in the process creates a fresh perspective around an under-represented but vital community.

Barakat is in cinemas nationwide.

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