Arab filmmakers tackle taboo subjects in new films

This fall, Arab filmmakers will be out in force at international festivals as prestigious as Venice and Toronto. Venice alone has six feature films by first-time and second-time Arab directors in its official sections, along with six more works in progress on its Final Cut production deck. Meanwhile, Toronto opens with “The Swimmers,” a drama from British director Sally El Hosaini based on the journey of Syrian sisters and Olympic hopefuls Yusra and Sara Mardini, who fled war in their home country for the Germany. Yusra participated in the 2016 and 2021 Summer Olympics. Six other Arab films will be screened at the Canadian festival.

Dek: Arab filmmakers embrace genres and issues as festivals and distributors take notice

By Alissa Simon

This fall, Arab filmmakers will be out in force at international festivals as prestigious as Venice and Toronto. Venice alone has six feature films by first-time and second-time Arab directors in its official sections, along with six more works in progress on its Final Cut production deck. Meanwhile, Toronto opens with “The Swimmers,” a drama from British director Sally El Hosaini based on the journey of Syrian sisters and Olympic hopefuls Yusra and Sara Mardini, who fled war in their home country for the Germany. Yusra participated in the 2016 and 2021 Summer Olympics. Six other Arab films will be screened at the Canadian festival.

Looking at titles chosen for top international festivals as well as theatrical and streaming captures from recent years, some trends emerge in new Arab cinema offerings. Independent film curator Rasha Salti echoes the views of many industry figures when she cites a “much bolder formal language, greater variety of genres, and cinema that dares to challenge societal taboos”.

Certainly, the Venetian titles illustrate this diversity and this audacity. “Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous,” the second feature from Franco-Lebanese director Wissam Charaf, opens the Venice Days, finds a fresh and engaging take on social issues through minimalist drama and deadpan humor. Moroccan-born British director Fyzal Boulifa combines melodrama, neo-realism and sexual frankness to compelling effect in the story of a mother and son on the fringes of society in ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’. Meanwhile, “The Last Queen,” the feature debut of French-Algerian couple Damien Ounouri and Adila Bendimerad, is a gorgeous costume drama with a fiery feminist twist set in 1516, the time of the conquest of Algiers. by Barbarossa.

Another example of taboo confrontation comes from this year’s Cannes FIPRESCI award winner, “Le Caftan bleu,” about a secluded tailor in Casablanca’s medina. Moroccan producer-co-screenwriter Nabil Ayouch and director-screenwriter Maryam Touzani agree that Arab cinema is now tackling more sensitive subjects. “This new freedom of tone is salutary and reveals the dynamism of Arab societies,” says Ayouch. The film, which has its North American premiere in Toronto, will be broadcast in the United States by Strand.

The flow of talent from the Arab world to English-speaking countries is an ongoing development. One of the latest to make the trip is Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab (“Cairo 678,” “Clash”), lead director of Marvel Studios’ limited series “Moon Knight,” a hit for Disney+.

Diab’s breakthrough has also brought international recognition to some of its key members, such as Emmy-nominated composer Hesham Nazih, now a member of AMPAS, and Ahmed Hafez, the first Egyptian publisher to join ACE. Meanwhile, Arab actors currently making a splash include British-Lebanese Razane Jammal in Netflix series ‘The Sandman’, Palestinian-Jordanian Tara Abboud in upcoming Disney+ series ‘Culprits’ and Egyptian-Briton Fady El Sayed. in “Gangs of London”. ”

While not yet a new wave, there is a remarkable burst of cinematic energy coming from Sudan. In 2019, producer-director-screenwriter Amjad Abu Alala won the Venice Lion of the Future Award, the first of many accolades, for his debut, “You Will Die At 20”. The following year Suhaib Gasmelbari’s documentary “Talking About Trees”, which follows four “involuntarily retired” filmmakers as they attempt to open a cinema, was released in Berlin and won several festival awards. Today, Egyptian film analyst Alaa Karkouti reports that his agency MAD Solutions has three Sudanese projects in the works, one of which, “Goodbye Julia”, written and directed by Mohmed Kordofani, will begin filming in October.

Not so long ago, cinemas barely existed in Saudi Arabia. Now, the desert kingdom offers substantial financial support for their films, and their box office receipts are the highest in Arab countries. The Red Sea Jeddah International Film Festival (RSIFF), launched in 2021, aims to be a crucial springboard for a new wave of creatives to showcase their work and network with the international industry.

RSIFF Managing Director Shivani Pandya Malhotra notes that the festival’s Red Sea Fund encourages and supports Arab and African filmmakers with development, production and post-production funding. “I’m delighted to see five of the films we supported in Venice: ‘Nezouh’ and ‘Hanging Gardens’ in Horizons Extra; “Dirty, Tough, Dangerous” and “The Last Queen” in Venice Days; and ‘Queens’, which will close Venice Critics’ Week,” she says.

Malhotra’s cry to the beneficiaries of the Red Sea Fund highlights another important trend in Arab auteur cinema: not only are the films screened at festivals the products of several co-producing countries, but they can also benefit from several festival funding programs.

When the funding and business hubs provided by the now-closed Dubai and Abu Dhabi festivals were a blow to Arab cinema, but the transformation of the Tribeca-Doha Film Festival into the Institute of Doha Film, which has funded hundreds of works, has helped fill the void.

The same goes for the Egyptian festival of El Gouna, although El Gouna is now taking a break. Fest Director Intishal Al Timimi says, “We are still preparing for our sixth edition, which has been postponed until next year. He notes that El Gouna will still offer its annual prize to the Final Cut Production Bridge in Venice and highlights the “Hanging Gardens” project supported by CineGouna.

Another new source of regional support is the Amman International Film Festival in Jordan, which recently completed its second edition with a focus on early works. Festival director Nada Doumani, who is also head of communications for the Royal Film Commission of Jordan, notes that the festival offers cash prizes to winning films and those in development and post-production through presentation platforms. during Amman Film Industry Days.

In November 2022, the Marrakech International Film Festival and the Atlas Workshops will return as in-person events. This year, the monetary value of his awards will increase to €106,000 ($107,000). The director of the Fest, Rémi Bonhomme, notes: “This year, five films supported by the Ateliers have found their place on the A-list festival circuit: the Tunisian titles ‘Ashkal’ by Youssef Chebbi [Rotterdam] and “Under the fig trees” by Erige Sehiri [Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight]and three Moroccan films — ‘Fragments From Heaven’ by Adnane Baraka [Locarno]and ‘Queens’ and ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ [Venice].”

The new Arab films in Venice and their sections:

Additional horizons

“Hanging gardens”

Director: Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji

(Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UK)

When a young garbage collector finds an American sex doll at the Baghdad dump, he is caught between trade and fundamentalism.

Sales: True Colors

“Nezouh”

Director: Soudade Kaadan

(UK, Syria, France)

An allegorical tale of female emancipation that looks at wartime reality with dark humor from the director of Future Lion winner ‘The Day I Lost My Shadow’.

Sales: MK2

Venice Days

“Dirty, difficult, dangerous”

Director: Wissam Sharaf

(France-Italy-Lebanon)

Contemporary social issues are wittily defused with quirky humor in the love story of an Ethiopian housekeeper and a Syrian refugee.

Sales: Intrafilms

“The Last Queen”

Directors: Adila Bendimerad, Damien Ounouri

(Algeria, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Taiwan)

The legend of Queen Zaphira offers a feminine look at a historic moment in the history of Algiers.

Sales: Party Film Sales

“The Damned Don’t Cry”

Director: Fyzal Boulifa

(France, Belgium, Morocco)

Fatima-Zahra and her teenage son Selim move from place to place, constantly trying to outrun her latest scandal.

Sales: Charades

Critics’ week, closing evening

“Queens”

Director: Yasmine Benkiran

(France, Morocco, Belgium, Netherlands, Qatar)

A road movie that stretches from Casablanca to the Atlantic coast as a trio of women lead the police on a long chase through the rugged red terrain and flowery valleys of the Atlas.

Sales: Kinology

Final Cut, Venice production deck

Fiction
” In the wings ”

Directors: Afef Ben Mahmoud, Khalil Benkirane

(Morocco, Belgium, France, Norway, Qatar, Tunisia)

A provocation on stage injures a member of a contemporary dance troupe.

“Black light”

Director: Karim Bensalah

(France, Algeria, Qatar)

Hoping to avoid deportation from France, an Algerian student takes a temporary job at a Muslim funeral home.

“Inshallah a boy director Amjad Al Rasheed (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar)

Inheritance laws put a grieving widow without sons at risk of losing her home.

Documentary

“A Fidaï movie”

Director Kamal Aljafari

(Germany, Palestine, Qatar)

During Israel’s invasion of Beirut in 1982, forces attacked the Palestinian Research Center and took away its library.

“Land of Women”

Directors Nada Riyad, Ayman El Amir

(Egypt, France, Denmark)

A coming-of-age tale set in a conservative Egyptian village where a group of Coptic girls form an all-female street theater troupe.

“Suspended”

Director Myriam El Hajj

(Lebanon, France, Qatar)

Lebanese director El-Hajj wonders: “How can we find our place in a country haunted by a past that continues to pollute the present?

About Monty S. Maynard

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