At AFMI, we are no stranger to Arab documentary films. They are a constant staple of our Arab Film Festival as well as our screenings throughout the year. Documentary films are a great tool to capture and share true stories with others.

This year we are presenting 13 Arab documentary films of feature length, as well as 12 Arab documentary films in short form. These Arab documentary films cover numerous topics from war and sexism, to soccer and beer brewing.  These films all vary style, from the verité style of footage taken in the midst of bombings, protests and fights, to artful styles reflecting quieter moments and slower subject matter, to the use of found footage, artful collages and animation used in place of what the filmmakers could not capture. Some of these powerful Arab documentary films have already screened at the festival but, if you missed them, we urge you to keep an eye out for them in theaters and online. Check out our full selection of feature Arab documentary films below.

Psst: this post about Arab Documentary Films is our 4th article on the amazing work playing at AFF2019. If you are looking for more great films from or about the Arab world, check our post about Queer Lens, North African films at this year’s festival and Elia Suleiman‘s work.


Film still from Advocate


Advocate is a film that uses the daily life of Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel to expose the hypocrisy of Israel’s apartheid regime while telling a much-needed history of Israeli-Palestinian solidarity. Lea Tsemel, an Israeli Jew, has represented resisters of the occupation since the 1970’s, and in 2015 she defends Ahmad, a thirteen-year-old boy accused of stabbing two Israeli teenagers. Aided by her Palestinian partner Tareq, Lea works with Ahmad’s family to craft a defense strategy and goes up against an Israeli court system, public, and media that frames the boy as a monster and strives to send him to prison for a maximum sentence. In spite of these obstacles, Lea remains optimistic after years of defeats at the hands of an unjust legal system and death threats, vowing to represent anyone who resists the occupation. This film utilizes a striking a balance between precise journalism and artistic experimentation that utilizes rotoscoping to bring together both fans of documentary cinema and all supporters of the Palestinian struggle

Advocate is directed by critically acclaimed documentary director, producer and editor Rachel Leah Jones and award-winning cinematographer Philippe Bellaïche.

Advocate will screen on October 19th at The New Parkway Theater. The screening is co-presented by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and Jewish Voice For Peace.

Film still from American Muslim

American Muslim

Following the Trump administration’s infamous “Muslim Ban,” American Muslim chronicles the work of several activists in New York – a Yemeni educator, a young Palestinian community organizer, an Indonesian Imam, a Bengali mosque president, and an Algerian mosque director – as they grapple with a resurgence of Islamophobia. From native residents to refugees seeking asylum, the film explores the many lives that have been affected by the current legislation. Though the Trump administration’s policies are at the forefront of the film, the film also tackles other commonly raised questions about the faith. Whether it be the role of the mosque, exploring women’s rights or understanding Islam’s compatibility with other religions – several facets of what it means to be an American-Muslim are likewise covered. This film provides a personalized perspective from those living the consequences every day.

American Muslim is directed by independent, award-winning filmmaker Adam Zucker. He is also the founder of the American Muslim Interfaith Project.

American Muslim will screen on October 20th at The New Parkway Theater.

Film still from Erased, _Ascent of the Invisible

Erased, _ Ascent of the Invisible

What does it take to render the invisible as visible? To breathe life, even if for an instant, as an exhalation: into the soul of the One who has long disappeared? Such is the aim of director Ghassan Halwani, in his debut feature and investigative essay film Erased,___ Ascent of the Invisible, who searches, almost obsessively, frenetically: for an Official Narrative of the more than 17,000 persons who “went missing” as a result of the multi-national sectarian conflict that rocked Lebanon from 1975-1990 – many finding their final resting place in mass graves sprinkled throughout the country.

Alongside a meticulous examination of countless official documents, newspaper articles, and archive video/audio: Halwani additionally mobilizes his own creative practice as an animator, photographer, and multi-media artist to enliven the residual essence of those who have long vanished, perpetually relegated to the liminal nexus of physical death and “existence” as the Lebanese Government continues to deny death to the disappeared, thus rendering them as “still living” within the legal milieu, or, as Halwani calls them: Immortals.

Erased, _ Ascent of the Invisible is directed by Lebanese filmmaker Ghassan Halwani. This is his first feature.

Erased, _ Ascent of the Invisible screened on October 15th at Little Roxie. The film is represented by mec film and we’ll hopefully be seeing it theaters soon! In the meantime you can check out the trailer here.

Arab Documentary Films

Film still from For Sama

For Sama

For Sama is both an intimate and epic journey into the female experience of war. A love letter from a young mother to her daughter, the film tells the story of Waad al-Kateab’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while cataclysmic conflict rises around her. Her camera captures incredible stories of loss, laughter and survival as Waad wrestles with an impossible choice – whether or not to flee the city to protect her daughter’s life, when leaving means abandoning the struggle for freedom for which she has already sacrificed so much. The film is the first feature documentary by Emmy award-winning filmmakers Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts.

For Sama is directed by award winning Syrian citizen journalist Waad al-Kateab who began documenting the horrors of Aleppo for Channel 4 News in a series of films titled “Inside Aleppo.”  The film is also directed by Emmy award-winning, BAFTA nominated-filmmaker Edward Watts.

For Sama will screen on October 19th at The New Parkway Theater.


Film still from Freedom Fields

Freedom Fields

An honest portrayal of patriarchal restraints, Freedom Fields explores the lengths some are willing to go in order to pursue their dreams. Spanning 5 years after the Libyan Revolution, the documentary follows the lives of Fadwa, Halima and Nama – members of the Libya’s women’s football team – in their efforts to be recognized as legitimate athletes. When the National Football Federation prohibits them from playing, the women realize that even a revolution cannot cure all of the country’s misogynistic policies. Mirroring images of unrest in the country with issues of gender equality struggling to be heard, the film portrays a frayed Islamic society, teetering on the edge of freedom and control. As the story unravels, viewers are perplexed by the ambiguous National Football Federation: are they actually concerned for the women’s safety? Or is there something more unjust behind their intentions? This documentary is full of breathtaking visuals – riveting soccer plays, street parades, and bullets whizzing through the night – allowing a comprehensive portrayal of Libya to emerge. Shot in a “direct cinema” style, the film provides a close up and personal view of the women’s lives.

Freedom Fields is directed by Libyan-English filmmaker Naziha Arebi. Arebi is known for her work at the cross-section between visual arts and activism, attracted to the human details in life that connect us all, the ordinary in the extraordinary and vice versa. Freedom Fields is her debut feature.

Freedom Fields will screen on October 19th at The New Parkway Theater. It is co-presented by the Women Sports Film Festival.

Arab Documentary Films

Film still from Gaza


Gaza depicts a people plagued by conflict but not defined by it and as we journey through the physically broken and battered landscape, we let our cast of characters speak for themselves. Through them we gain a nuanced understanding of what life is really like for its citizens and, by extension grow and foster a rare familiarity and affinity with this truly unique place, as we build towards a tender portrait of a beleaguered humanity. Gaza was recently announced as Ireland’s official 2020 Oscar entry!

Gaza is directed by award-winning Beirut-based photographer Andrew McConnell and accomplished Irish documentary filmmaker Garry Keane.

Gaza will be screening on October 16th at The Roxie Theater and October 19th at The New Parkway Theater.

Arab Documentary Films

Gaza Fights For Freedom

The documentary tells the story of Gaza past and present, showing rare archival footage and info graphics that explains a complex history never acknowledged by mass media as first-hand accounts of victims of the ongoing massacre are relayed, including journalists, medics and the family of the internationally-acclaimed paramedic and humanitarian, Razan al-Najjar. The film is an indictment of the Israeli military for war crimes backed by thorough legal documentation, exclusive evidence, and pain-staking fact-finding all directed at exposing the truths of apartheid.

Gaza Fights For Freedom is directed by Oakland-born journalist and presenter Abby Martin. She was the host of Breaking the Set on RT America and launched the series The Empire Files in 2015. This is her debut feature.

Gaza Fights For Freedom screened on October 13th at The Roxie Theater. If you missed it, you can rent or buy the film now on Vimeo. Additional information on film can be found on the film’s website.

Film still from Jaddoland


Jaddoland explores the meaning of home and the search for belonging across generations. When the filmmaker returns to her hometown in the Texas panhandle to visit her mother, an artist from Iraq, she turns her lens on her mother’s increasingly isolated life, as well as the beauty and solace that emerge through her creative process. Soon, the filmmaker’s charismatic grandfather arrives, still longing for the homeland he recently left. While the shadow of geopolitical and historical forces looms on the periphery, the filmmaker searches for unexpected moments of meaning in the everyday, subtly weaving threads between past and present, her mother’s work and her own. In doing so, she draws an artful and deeply intimate portrait of one family reimagining its relationships to the places they call home.

Jaddoland is directed by Oakland-based artist Nadia Shihab who is known for her work across film and sound with an interest in diasporic longing, relationships to place, and processes of improvisation. This is her first feature-length documentary.

Jaddoland will be screening on October 20th at The New Parkway Theater. Director Nadia Shihab will be present for a Q&A after the film.

Film still from The Swing

The Swing

Viviane and Antoine have lived together for 65 years, and while she still has her strength, he has long been bedridden. At a certain point physical weakness is extremely difficult to face, so the family at least tries to keep Antoine’s spirit alive. The news that their adored, devoted, and incredibly loving daughter Marie-Thérèse has tragically died is so devastating that no one manages or even wants to tell the weakened old man. Indeed, the grief might bring on his death. This documentary poem plays out in an imagined state of limbo, in which a person awaits the approaching end of life: even if it assuages a harrowing internal disquiet, it brings others only pain. A heavy lyrical portrait brightened by the warming rays of loved ones’ smiles.

The Swing is directed by Lebanese director and screenwriter Cyril Aris. Aris has received international recognition for his films and is a recently appointed member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This is his debut documentary feature.

The Swing will screen on October 17th at The New Parkway Theater. Director Cyril Aris will be present for a Q&A after the film.

Arab Documentary Films

Film still from Tiny Souls

Tiny Souls

Marwa, her mother and siblings are stranded in Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan, where they arrived in 2012 after escaping war in Syria. She is nine, and like any child, her concerns revolve around school, and her interests around playtime. Throughout the film, her playful character comes to life with her mischievous younger brother Mahmoud and her sassy younger sister, Ayah, whose character also reveals the depth of the emotional impact war can have on a little girl. Four months into camp life, Marwa expects that theyʼd likely stay there for another week, maybe two. Over the ensuing four years, the director follows Marwaʼs day to day life in the camp, where she blossoms from a child to a young woman, where life perseveres time and again, despite its unusual shape.

Amidst daily challenges, we witness humor, friction, and a range of survival sentiments, but above all, resilience is vivid. As a young, open spirit, Marwa envisions herself as a “free pigeon” in her own words, unrestricted by high walls and barbwires. As the years go by, Marwa gets attached to her camp life, friends, and make-shift home, until one day, her elder brother is called upon by authorities for interrogation about his association with militant extremists. Only then their “settled” life takes an immense turn, and questions the certainty of their narrative.

Tiny Souls is directed by Jordanian-Palestinian director, writer and producer Dina Naser. She got her start in television and film production before beginning to work independently. Her previous work is highly regarded and award winning. This is her feature length debut.

Tiny Souls will be screening on October 17th at The New Parkway Theater.

Arab Documentary Films

Film still from We Are Not Princesses

We Are Not Princesses

The Syrian refugee crisis is on the world stage. But We Are Not Princesses shows a personal side of the crisis most have never seen, following the daily lives of four remarkable women, whose extraordinary struggles and strength tell a different kind of story, about obedience and defiance, resilience and reconciliation. With intimately revealing footage and evocative animation, filmmakers Bridgette Auger and Itab Azzam follow the women as they navigate new lives and small freedoms in exile, adapting to new roles: in their families and in a theater production of the Greek play, Antigone, by Sophocles.

We Are Not Princesses is directed by award-winning London-based Syrian filmmaker Itab Azzam and artist and filmmaker Bridgette Auger. Azzam is also the producer of the theater piece Antigone of Syria. Additionally, she is co-founder of Sabbara, a social enterprise empowering women through economic employment and psychological support, and also co-founded the Open Art Foundation, an arts charity that works with marginalised communities around the world.

We Are Not Princesses will be screening on October 18th at The New Parkway Theater. The film’s producer, Sara Maamouri, will be present for a Q&A following the film.

Arab Documentary Films

Film still from Western Arabs

Western Arabs

A warm, tough and brutally honest story about a family wherein the father came to Denmark from Palestine in 1966. A story about three generations. About anger and love. About experiences being passed on. About being split between two cultures. About brothers, fathers and the things we want to change in the raising of our own children. At the same time, it is a story individuals with a refugee background will recognize – and that is very much the point, as director Omar Shargawi reveals: “I think it will exemplify a lot of the families in the Western world who have refugee backgrounds. Families who suffered from war and chaos, and who escaped it by fleeing their home countries. That is the story I want to tell, rather than the story of my own family.” Furthermore, the film is about “going back” as Shargawi journeys to Palestine, the country his father fled, to find answers. Above all, Western Arabs is a universal story. Of the love of one’s parents. Of questions which the past brings with it. Of families and loss.

Western Arabs is directed by award-winning Danish-Palestinian photographer and filmmaker Omar Shargawi.

For more additional Arab documentary films in short format featured at AFF2019, check out the Documentary Nexus shorts program as well as selections with in the Ruya (Visions) and From The West Bank shorts programs.

For more information on screening dates, times, locations and tickets, including all the Arab documentary films listed above, please visit our festival website!