Looking for Arab Films at the Berlinale? The 70th Berlin International Film Festival, known also as the Berlinale, begins February 20th in Berlin, Germany. It’s known as one of the “Big Three” festivals and is considered highly prestigious. Here is our annual round up of all the Arab films that will be featured in this year’s festival!

Psst: check out Arab films at the Berlinale 2019 and 2018 if you are looking for more movies to watch.

Feature Films

Let’s start our round up of Arab films at the Berlinale with this year’s feature-legth films.

Arab Films at the Berlinale

Film still from Nardjes A.

Nardjes A. by Karim Aïnouz
Alegria/France/Germany/Brazil/Qatar – Documentary Feature – 80 mins
Section: Panorama Dokumente (World Premiere)

On his first trip to Algeria in the spring of 2019, filmmaker and Berlinale regular Karim Aïnouz experiences at first hand the protests against President Bouteflika’s fifth term of office. He quickly abandons his plan to make a film about his father’s home country and opts instead to document the ongoing, non-violent protests of the “Revolution of Smiles” in Algiers. Through friends, he meets the activist Nardjes, and accompanies her for 24 hours on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2019. He shows her chanting slogans at a large-scale rally with thousands of demonstrators and then, after sharing an evening meal, dancing at a club where everyone shakes off the tensions of the day. His camera is constantly at the heart of the action. The young people in Aïnouz’s film are representative of a new, politically engaged generation worldwide; he portrays a youth that is confidently taking to the streets to protest against corruption and fight for the democratic future of their country – the same country for whose independence from France their parents and grandparents once fought.

Arab Films at the Berlinale

Film still from Al-Houbut

Al-Houbut (The Landing) by Akram Zaatari
Lebanon/United Arab Emirates – Documentary Feature – 63 min
Section: Forum Expanded

Whether they inhabit the desert or are lost in it, three men are clearly confronted with the ruins of modern times. They are explorers of times past or players/performers in an existing architectural site. Their encounters, their moves, their assessment of location take the form of an acoustic sounding of space. The second in our list of this year’s Arab films at the Berlinale, Al-Houbut takes place in Shaabiyat al Ghurayfah, a public housing project in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates built in the eighties to provide descendants of the Ketbi Bedouins with their first concrete homes. This site, now totally deserted, witnessed the first move of Bedouin families from tents into modern designed habitations. The film unfolds as a repertoire of simple gestures, a few of which are inspired by the photographic documentation of performances by Hassan Sharif, playfully engaging with architecture, vegetation, space, movement, threshold, surveillance, and perspective. Cables, sewage pipes, tubes, shovels, kitchen tools, electric air blowers, and even a helicopter landing on site are all deployed in this film for their sonic rather than narrative potential – creating refractions, confrontations, and transformations in a broken-off, folded narrative.

Film still from Kama fissamaa’ kathalika ala al-ard

Kama fissamaa’ kathalika ala al-ard (As Above So Below) by Sarah Francis
with Naji Adwan, Ali Ibrahim, Abed Abdallah, Chakib Nassif, Charly Kamar
Lebanon – Narrative Feature – 70 min
Section: Forum (World Premiere)

A group of people wander over a field at the foot of a cloud-covered mountain range. Here and there, swings have been set up in the broad landscape and the people queue up obediently to sit on them for a few rounds. Sarah Francis returns to this scene again and again. In between, we follow a creation story from the beginnings of humanity to the establishment of religion, culminating in digital clouds that weave together facts and myths surrounding the moon. The moon is the quiet centre of this system; it floats over the people as their constant companion and at the same time becomes their property. From the first lunar landing via territorial partitioning to space as the “final frontier,” the same discourses of power, ownership, territory and nationality that determine life on earth also shape this celestial body. One of the Arab films at the Berlinale, Kama fissamaa’ kathalika ala al-ard is a quiet, understated essay that weaves together images, texts and sounds into a dense mesh of signs. Humans may be at the centre here, but, as part of the universe, they are also infinitesimally small.

Arab Films at the Berlinale

Film still from Born of the ***

Born of the ***: On Zarathustra’s Going Under from Cairo to Oran by Ayreen Anastas & Rene Gabri
Palestine/USA – Documentary Feature
Section: Forum Expanded (World Premiere)

This is the third part of Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri’s attempt to revisit and unwork Anastas’s film initiated in 2007, which sought to translate and put into play Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” onto the contemporary Arab World. Rather than merely adapt or restage the ideas from this seminal work, the film instead continues an expanded effort to rethink life and art today through this encounter between gestures, insights, visions, prophecies, and certain conditions, questions, afflictions attributed to territories demarcated as Arab. One of the most unique of Arab films at the Berlinale 2020, this film defies categorization, as it is neither essay nor performance, neither documentary nor fiction; it is instead an attempt at a clearing for something which is refused and refuses a designated place, people, time – yet it is what is most desired.

Film still from Purple Sea

Purple Sea by Amel Alzakout & Khaled Abdulwahed
Germany – Documentary Feature – 67 min
Section: Forum Expanded (World Premiere)

“I see everything,” she says, as if it were a curse. Brilliant sunshine, clear blue skies. The sea is calm, framed by a piece of railing. Buzzing voices. A peaceful moment if it weren’t for the fact that the sea is standing upright, vertical, like a waterfall. A rush of images, twirling, upside down, jolting. People in the boat, in the water, screams, life jackets, emergency whistles. Fluorescent orange, geometrical shapes cast by the sun. There’s no horizon any more, no sky, no up or down, only deepness and nothing to hold on to. Even time’s flow comes to a halt, contracting into the brutal present. She is filming and speaking. To him, to herself, to us, perhaps. Floating legs in sweat pants, jeans, thronged together. A blouse with butterflies, it looks like their wings are flapping in the water. The snake-like belt of a coat, a crumpled-up plastic cup, a pack of cigarettes. Fuck you all! She speaks, she rages, and she films to beat being tired, being cold, the fact that help isn’t coming. To beat dying, just for something to remain.

Film still from Yalda, la nuit du pardon

Yalda, la nuit du pardon (Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness) by Massoud Bakhshi
(with Sadaf Asgari, Behnaz Jafari, Babak Karimi, Fereshteh Sadr Orafaee, Forough Ghajebeglou)
France/Germany/Switzerland/Luxembourg/Lebanon/Iran – Narrative Feature – 89 min
Section: Generation 14plus

The spotlights and cameras are all in position. The moderator takes a last quick look at his notes. The final seconds of the intro ad roll by – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – and then the reality TV show goes live. Televised on the night of Yalda, of all days, a Persian celebration of the winter solstice. Tonight’s guest is Maryam, a young woman condemned to death. She is accompanied in studio by Mona, who has always been like a big sister to her. Maryam was living with Mona’s father in a temporary, marriage. Now she stands accused of his murder. In front of the camera and millions of viewers, Maryam is supposed to beg for forgiveness and her life. Alluding to a real, popular Iranian TV Show, the television studio serves as a stage for a chamber play that also explores the social dimensions behind the personal drama.

While this film is an Iranian film, we felt it should be included due to it’s production taking place partially in Lebanon and Qatar.


Short Films

Do you prefer short-format film? Check out these short Arab films at the Berlinale.

Arab Films at the Berlinale

Film still from El sghayra

El sghayra (Miss) by Amira Géhanne Khalfallah
(with Chams Chakiri, Abdellah Chakiri, Safia Soudani, Abdelhak Eddawli)
Algeria/France – Narrative Short – 13 min
Section: Generation Kplus

The Algerian desert extends in all directions as far as the eye can see. Many years after the French conducted nuclear weapons testing here, few inhabitants remain in the fading oasis. Amidst the dunes, a gleeful girl plays with pieces of junk, watches Chaplin’s silent films and jokes around with the blind residents. She is the community’s only child. On the surface, there’s not much sensory input, but her imagination kindles a sense of vitality.

Arab Films at the Berlinale

Film still from Moazzam ma yalla hagegy

Moazzam ma yalla haqeqy (Most of What Follows Is True) by Maged Nader
(with Amgad Reyad, Mohamed El Noss)
Egypt – Narrative Short – 11 mins
Section: Forum Expanded (World Premiere)

A man returns to his neighborhood looking for his brother. He confronts the destruction of his old home, which has become a featureless wasteland. He keeps looking for his brother’s traces, but all he finds is the urban legend about his disappearance.

Al-Maw’oud (The Promised) by Ahmed Elghoneimy
(with Mahmoud Antar, Hussein Emam, Tarek Mokhtar)
Egypt – Documentary Short – 19 min
Section: Forum Expanded (World Premiere)

In and around the historical ruins of Fustat in Old Cairo, tensions simmer between the site’s government-appointed guards and residents of a nearby informal settlement, al-Izba. The guards chase away looters and confiscate their equipment, while locals infuriate them by taking shortcuts through the site, occasionally stopping for a smoke. For the guards it would be easiest to keep the site closed until further notice.

Arab Films at the Berlinale

Film still from Clebs

Clebs by Halmia Ouardiri
Canada/Morocco – Documentary Short – 18 min
Section: Generation 14plus

Cooped up inside the red clay walls of the shelter, there are hundreds of them: jostling together on the dusty ground or aimlessly traipsing about, yet ultimately following the rules and dynamics of a pack. In its contemplation of the dreary everyday life of stray dogs, oscillating between feeding times and eternal waiting, Halima Ouardiri‘s second short film at Generation draws socio-political parallels under the burning North African sun.

Film still from Letter to a Friend

Letter to a Friend by Emily Jacir
Palestine – Documentary Short – 43 min
Section: Forum Expanded

A close friend is asked to start an investigation before an inevitable act occurs. Interlacing images, textures, movements, traces, and sounds from over a century, letter to a friend recounts in minute detail a home and street in Bethlehem.

Film still from So We Live

So We Live by Rand Abou Fakher
(with Amina Alhaj, Abd Alhameid Alobeid, Rahaf Alobeid, Lona Alobeid)
Belgium – Narrative Short – 16 min

A family in a living room, shot in one take. The blackout curtains are drawn. Everyone tries to keep calm and go about their usual business while outside, bombs are falling. But everyone’s nerves are on edge. Everyday life in a permanent state of emergency.

Film still from Écume

Écume by Omar Elhamy

(with Hakim loudyi, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Papedame Dinogue, Manuel Soulières, Farid El-Arkhas)
Canada – Narrative Short – 28 min

The car repair shop is their second home and their colleagues are like family. Everyone has their quirks and is accepted for the way they are. But then comes the bad news: they are soon to be squeezed out by a more lucrative new building project. How should they respond? How can they support each other? A buddy film about life’s little and larger transformations, about social class and solidarity, captured in sensitively telling images.


Forum 50

The Berlinale Forum is a program that began 50 years ago intending to “expand the understanding of what film is, to test the boundaries of convention and open up fresh perspectives to help grasp cinema and how it relates to the world in new ways.” In honor of the anniversary, this section will be presenting the films shown in the year it was founded. This year’s lineup of Arab films at the Berlinale’s Forum 50 includes a handful of films connected to Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia, including two films by celebrated Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo, who sadly passed away last March.

Film still from El Ghorba

El Ghorba (The Passengers) by Annie Tresgot
Algeria – Documentary Feature – 84 min

For two years, the filmmaker accompanied Rachid, an Algerian in France. She juxtaposed friendly, yet insistent chats about his daily life and plans with facts and figures about migration, raising questions about racism and class relations. When the viewer sees “France for the French” on a wall, it becomes clear how pertinent these questions remain today, if it weren’t clear enough already.

Film still from Mes voisins

Mes voisins (My Neighbors) by Med Hondo
France – Documentary Short – 35 min

African migrants in Paris talk about everyday life and racism on the labour and housing markets. The chanson from which the film takes its title sings of misery on people’s own doorstep. Hondo then switches to another mode to continue his analysis of social conditions: never has the post-colonial state of the world been summarised as succinctly as in the closing animated sequence.

Film still from Soleil Ô

Soleil Ô (Oh Sun) by Med Hondo
(with Robert Liensol, Théo Légitimus, Gabriel Glissand, Greg Germain, Mabousso Lô)
France/Mauritania – Narrative Feature – 104 min

The very first minutes of Med Hondo’s debut film already impress with a wealth of ideas that made this winner of Locarno’s Golden Leopard award stand out even in the crowded field of political cinema in the early 1970s. Following an animated intro full of black humour, the ways in which colonial powers subjugated the African continent (religion, violence, money) are called to mind in a dreamily absurd sequence. Only then does the actual narrative begin: the story of a young man who arrives in Paris from Africa with high hopes, but soon realises that the society of the colonisers won’t give him a chance – and that he is subject to a racism that can be either brutally direct or issued from behind a liberal mask. This is a film as an internal monologue sprinkled with bits of cinéma vérité, montage learned from Eisenstein, and many moments of sardonic humour that conceal a profound despair.

Film still from Remparts d’argile

Remparts d’argile (Ramparts of Clay) by Jean-Louis Bertuccelli
(with Leila Shenna, Krikeche, Jean-Louis Trintignant)
France/Algeria – Narrative Feature – 87 min

Jean-Louis Bertuccelli weaves together two stories: that of a sit-down strike in the village of Chebika and that of a nineteen-year-old woman adopted into the community. For a long time, little happens, as the film, which is based on a book by sociologist Jean Duvignaud, slips into observational mode, unfolding the intermeshing of landscape and life in southern Tunisia without dialogue: women collecting water and weaving, children at school, men working in a quarry. When the workers refuse to sell their goods to the dealer, he calls on the military. Capital and violence encounter the resistance of the forces of production. Bertuccelli, who had to shoot his film in Algeria because of reservations on the part of the Tunisian government, stays with the perspective of the exploited without glossing over the violence within their community.

Film still from Monagambeee

Monangambeee by Sarah Maldoror
(with Carlos Pestana, Noureddine Dreis, Mohamed Zinet, Athmane Sabi, Elisa Pestana)
Algeria – Short – 16 min

“Monangambeee” was a rallying cry used by activists during Angola’s anti-colonial liberation struggle to gather villages together. Monangambeee is also the title of a short film by Sarah Maldoror that addresses Portuguese arrogance towards Angolan culture. The filmmaker draws on a novella by José Luandino Vieira, the story of a political prisoner, to make a film about humiliation, solidarity and resistance.

While this is an Angolan story, we felt it should be included as it was produced in Algeria. 

Film still from Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther

Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther by William Klein
Algeria/France – Documentary Feature – 75 mins

“Filmed and edited by William Klein … in collaboration with Eldridge Cleaver and Robert Scheer” read the red-lettered credits at the beginning of this portrait of Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver. In the late sixties, Cleaver left the United States for Cuba, then Algeria, in order to avoid prosecution. Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther tells the story of his political activism in exile and becomes itself more incendiary by the minute. But it also stops from time to time to take stock, such as in the conversations between Cleaver and Scheer or in Cleaver’s encounters with representatives of Pan-African peace movements or South Vietnam. How does the American struggle fit into the struggle against worldwide imperialism and how does the Panther’s revolutionary language fit into Klein’s images? A film that creates affirmative images, but still asks how images produce images nonetheless.

While this is predominantly an American story, we felt it should be included as it was produced in Algeria. 

Forum Expanded – Group Exhibition

The Forum Expanded is a section of the festival that ” provides an open platform for film formats from a broader range of disciplines, including visual art, theatre, performance, music and the media”. While the program’s selection of Arab films at the Berlinale have been noted above, a number of Arab artists have been invited to be included in this year’s group exhibition. A full list of artists and pieces can be found here.

Half Blue by Joe Namy
USA/Lebanon – European Premiere

INFINITY minus Infinity by The Otolith Group
United Kingdom/United Arab Emirates/Belgium – International Premiere

Secrets of a Digital Garden: 50 Villages – 50 Flowers by RIWAQ in collaboration with Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari
Palestine – European Premiere

Ready for great Arab cinema? Tell us in the comments in you watch Arab films at the Berlinale this year!