Autumn is around the corner, and with it comes our favorite time of the year — fall film festival season! Some of the world’s most prestigious festivals are starting soon, and we’re here to give you the roundup of Arab cinema you should watch out for at these festivals ahead of our very own Arab Film Festival opening on November 10th this year. Let jump right into it!
Arab Films at the Toronto International Film Festival
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 7-17th. A handful of Arab films will be playing, having their world premieres or North American premieres at the festival. Nadine Labaki, acclaimed Lebanese director of Capernaum, Caramel and others, resides on the official jury!
Four Daughters by Kaouther Ben Hania
France, Tunisia, Germany, Saudi Arabia – Documentary Feature – Special Presentations
Tunisian director of the Oscar-nominated film The Man Who Sold His Skin makes her TIFF debut with this experimental documentary. Olfa Hamrouni’s two eldest daughters, Ghofrane and Rahma, disappeared in 2015 (aged 16 and 15), leaving her and her two youngest daughters, Eya and Tayssir (then aged 10 and 12), heartbroken and sleepless. In an effort to piece together their layered story, Ben Hania invites professional actors to step into the places of the missing sisters. The film originally premiered in June in the official selection at the Cannes Film Festival.
Unicorns by Sally El Hosaini
United Kingdom, USA, Sweden – Narrative Feature – Special Presentations
El Hosaini is back at TIFF for the second year in a row after her film The Swimmers played Opening Night last year. Hard-working single father Luke has grown accustomed to settling for transactional sex in his fleeting parcels of spare time. But when he stumbles across an underground nightclub, he meets Aysha, a beautiful, seductive woman. Their first kiss yields fireworks — which are immediately followed by Luke’s sobering realization that Aysha is not the cisgender woman he thought, but a remarkably femme drag queen.
Inshallah A Boy by Amjad Al Rasheed
Jordan, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt – Narrative Feature – Centrepiece
Amjad Al Rasheed’s sensitive debut feature is set in motion when Nawal is left facing destitution after the sudden passing of her husband. In the absence of any formal inheritance agreement, her brother-in-law is quick to swoop in to exercise his claim on not just the couple’s apartment, but guardianship of Nawal’s young daughter Nora. The only way to forestall the seemingly inevitable eviction is if Nawal can give birth to a son, a desperate objective that forces her into a series of rash situations that challenge not only her faith but the limits of her strength.
The Nature of Love by Monia Chokri
Canada, France – Narrative Feature – Centrepiece
In a relationship with her partner for ten years, Sophia’s curiosity about infidelity grows into much more when she meets Sylvain, the strapping, plaid-adorned contractor tasked with fixing up the couple’s country home. They quickly begin a tumultuous affair, but Sophia has a hard time reconciling the reality of their differences, especially when they introduce their family and friends to one another, and their disparate political leanings and varying viewpoints become comically apparent. Chokri is Quebecois and of Tunisian descent; The Nature of Love previously premiered at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard section this year.
Bye Bye Tiberias by Lina Soualem
France, Belgium, Qatar, Palestine – Documentary Feature – TIFF Docs
In her early twenties, Hiam Abbass left her native Palestinian village to follow her dream of becoming an actress in Europe, leaving behind her mother, grandmother, and seven sisters. Thirty years later, her filmmaker daughter Lina returns with her to the village and questions for the first time her mother’s bold choices, her chosen exile and the way the women in their family influenced both their lives. Set between past and present, Bye Bye Tiberias pieces together images of today, family footage from the nineties and historical archives to portray four generations of daring Palestinian women who keep their story and legacy alive through the strength of their bonds, despite exile, dispossession, and heartbreak.
Defiant by Karim Amer
Ukraine, United States, United Kingdom – Documentary Feature – TIFF Docs
Egyptian-American filmmaker Karim Amer goes behind the scenes with key figures in the Ukrainian government, most prominently Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba as he conducts a shuttle diplomacy with leaders in Washington and Europe. Rooted in Ukraine’s struggle, the documentary offers wider insights into what it means in today’s world to conduct a war of words.
The Mother of All Lies by Asmae El Moudir
Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar – Documentary Feature – TIFF Docs
Winner of the Best Director award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and co-recipient of the festival’s Best Documentary Prize, Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir employs an inventive mode of storytelling to uncover layers of personal and political history. Much of her family’s past is veiled in secrecy. In search of answers, she enlists the building talents of her father, Mohamed, to construct a scale model of their Casablanca street. Around this playful space, El Moudir assembles family and friends for an epic session of group therapy that veers between comedy and tragedy.
Sisterhood by Nora El Hourch
France – Narrative Feature – Platform
Three teenage girls, inseparable friends, struggle with the aftermath of a pivotal incident that brings to light their differences in race, social class, and cultural privilege, threatening their seemingly invincible bond.
After the fire by Mehdi Fikri
France – Narrative Feature – Discovery
With a slow-burning intensity, Mehdi Fikri’s feature debut follows a grieving family in their quest for justice after the police slaying of 25-year-old Karim in the suburbs of Strasbourg. Devastated by the news, his estranged sister Malika reunites with her family, compelled to seek justice for her slain brother.
Hajjan by Abu Bakr Shawky
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan – Narrative Feature – Discovery
In the high-energy world of small-circuit camel racing, Ghanim is preparing for the Great Safwa Race. Younger brother and Bedouin tailor Matar grew up hearing Ghanim recite poetry about their legendary grandfather, referred to only as “Hajjan,” the Arabic word for jockey. But while following in his grandfather’s footsteps and trying to build a name for himself in a regional qualifying race, foul play cuts Ghanim’s dreams short. Though Matar doesn’t share Ghanim’s passion for the track, he does share a rider’s love for his camel, Hofira. The devoted pair set out to avenge Ghanim. Egyptian-Austrian director Shawky’s rousing second feature boasts a fabled sense of urgency, backed by an evocative score and the awe-inspiring atmosphere of the Arabian desert.
Mandoob by Ali Kalthami
Saudi Arabia – Narrative Feature – Discovery
Unlucky tryhard Fahad Nassir is, at best, mediocre at his call centre day job. He’s been showing up for work late, exhausted by his nighttime hustle working as a delivery app courier (mandoob) cruising the streets of Riyadh, filling orders to save money for his aging father’s medical treatment. When Fahad’s mistakes catch up with him and he is fired from the call centre, he decides he won’t go quietly. Ali Kalthami’s dark comedic feature debut lets us into the rarely seen, ultra-modern world of Saudi nightlife.
The Teacher by Farah Nabulsi
United Kingdom, Palestine, Qatar – Narrative Feature – Discovery
The feature debut of writer-director of the short film The Present, Farah Nabulsi. Palestinian schoolteacher Basem El-Saleh becomes particularly involved in the lives of two of his students — brothers, studious Adam and more defiant Yacoub — as their home is bulldozed without warning. Meanwhile, an American diplomat and his wife beg for the return of their kidnapped son, a soldier who has been held hostage for three years by a Palestinian resistance group. In exchange for the soldier’s release, the group demands the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners — a prospect the government cannot or will not entertain. Soon, the search for the soldier, Adam’s growing rage, and Basem’s ongoing commitment to supporting political resistance make for a volatile combination that threatens to destroy everyone involved.
Yellow Bus by Wendy Bednarz
United Arab Emirates – Narrative Feature – Discovery
In Wendy Bednarz’s feature debut, an Indian woman living in the Arabian Gulf embarks on a search for truth and accountability after her daughter is left to die on a school bus in the sweltering desert heat. A sobering and resolute examination of the Gulf’s evolving cultural landscape, Yellow Bus imparts an unforgettable lesson in the power of a mother’s determination against all odds.
NAGA by Meshal Aljaser
Saudi Arabia – Narrative Feature – Midnight Madness
When it comes to disobedience in Saudi Arabia, the repercussions can be extreme. And so when Sarah is given a strict curfew by her father for an approved shopping trip, she knows that she must meet his expectations by any means necessary. Especially since Sarah’s shopping plans are actually subterfuge for a secret date with Saad, a young suitor who just scored her an invitation to an underground party in the desert. The best-laid deception goes quickly awry, and Sarah gets stranded miles away from home. Dodging a parade of arrogant and creepy men, not to mention a bloodthirsty, rabid camel, Sarah sets out on a wild adventure through distinct spheres of contemporary Saudi society in a desperate race against a ticking clock.
Dammi by Yann Mounir Demange
France – Narrative Short – Short Cuts
A man travels back to Paris while navigating his past experiences and weird glimpses of the present in an effort to reconnect with his estranged father. He is forced to face his fears and guilt while also reclaiming his lost Arab identity.
The Skates by Halima Ouadiri
Canada – Narrative Short – Short Cuts
An adolescent girl’s figure skating lesson becomes the latest battleground in the marital warfare between her parents in Halima Ouardiri’s piercing family drama.
Arab Films at the Venice International Film Festival
The 80th Venice International Film Festival is running from August 30 to September 9. While no Arab films are competing for the Golden Lion this year, a few will be playing in the Horizons, Venice Immersive, and the adjacent independent film festival, Venice Nights. Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri resides as a jury member this year for the Main Competition; Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania is on the Horizons jury, and Moroccan filmmaker Faouzi Bensaïdi will help award the Luigi de Laurentis Award for Debut Film.
Hollywoodgate by Ibrahim Nash’at
Germany, United States – Documentary Feature – Out of Competition
The day after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban immediately move to occupy the Hollywood Gate complex, claimed to be a former CIA base in Kabul. The Taliban find what the most technologically advanced military in history left behind: aircrafts, weapons, and valuable military equipment. Baffled by the technology, Malawi Mansour, the newly assigned Air Force commander, orders his soldiers to inventory and repair everything they can. Mukhtar, motivated to one day conquer the world, arrives at Hollywood Gate aiming to build a high-ranking military career. Over the course of one year, Egyptian director Ibrahim Nash’at exposes the transformation of a fundamentalist militia into a military regime.
Behind the Mountains by Mohamed Ben Attia
Tunisia, Belgium, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Qatar – Narrative Feature – Horizons
After spending four years in jail, Rafik has only one plan, to take his son behind the mountains and show him his amazing discovery.
Sea Salt by Leila Basma
Czech Republic – Narrative Short – Horizons
On this hot summer day on the southern seaside of Lebanon, 17-year-old Nayla is faced with the same dilemma every Lebanese youngster is faced with today: to leave or to stay. Two men in her life have set ideas about it, but both might wake up to a surprise.
Et si le soleil plongeait dans l’océan de nues by Wissam Charaf
France, Lebanon – Narrative Short – Horizons
Beirut, Lebanon. On the waterfront’s construction site, security agent Raed must prevent passing-by walkers from accessing the seaside. Yet as the horizon becomes each day more stifled by the construction, Raed makes peculiar encounters—mere dreams, or symbols of his desires?
Remember this Place: 31°20’46’’N 34°46’46’’E by Patricia Echeverria Liras
Palestine, Qatar, Spain – Narrative Feature – Venice Immersive (In Competition)
Remember this place: 31°20’46”N 34°46’46”E explores the concept of a fragile home: one that has been continuously threatened in the physical world, yet continues to survive thanks to the determination of local women who fight daily to preserve their rights to the land. The story does not take place in one location. It does not have one protagonist. It is a journey across many homes, communities, and villages, where we encounter powerful Bedouin women who are activists, architects, artists, and poets working tirelessly to preserve their homes, culture, and histories from being erased.
Populate by Maya Mouawad, Cyril Laurier
France – Narrative Feature – Venice Immersive
Peupler is an immersive and interactive installation that aims to talk about cohabitation and the inter-connectivity of the world. We want to give nature a place whose recognition is sometimes confiscated by technology. The city of tomorrow looks like cohabitation with nature as a necessity and technology will be the guardian of it.
Backstage by Afef Ben Mahmoud, Khalil Benkirane
Morocco – Narrative Feature – Venice Nights (In Competition)
The dance company “Without Borders” is concluding a Moroccan tour. During the penultimate show in an Atlas Mountains’ town, Aida provokes Hedi, her life and stage partner, who injures her in front of the horrified eyes of the other members of the troupe. They must depart in a hurry to seek urgent medical care and take to the road to meet the only doctor available in the area, in hopes to save the last performance.
Alongside it’s showing at TIFF, Lina Soualem’s documentary Bye Bye Tiberias will also be shown at Venice Nights as part of the Special Events.
Running alongside the festival screenings, Final Cut Venice is an industry program that since 2013 has been providing support in the completion of films from Africa and the Middle East. Four work-in-progress films from the Arab world this year will be introduced to producers, buyers, distributors, post-production companies and film festival programmers; they are the following:
Allah is Not Obliged by Zaven Najjar (France – Narrative Feature): When ten-year-old Birahima’s mother dies, he leaves his native village in Guinea, accompanied by the sorcerer and cook Yacouba, to search for his aunt Mahan. Crossing the border into Liberia, they are seized by rebels and forced into military service. Birahima becomes a child-soldier. Fighting in a chaotic civil war alongside many other boys, Birahima sees death, torture, dismemberment and madness but somehow manages to retain his own sanity.
Happy Holidays by Scandar Copti (Palestine, Qatar – Narrative Feature): A student’s involvement in a minor accident sets off a chain reaction of events that leads to the exposition of her double life, as well as the double lives of some of her relatives. From the director of Oscar-nominated film Ajami (2009).
Sudan, When Poems Fall Apart by Hind Meddeb (France, Tunisia – Documentary Feature)
She Was Not Alone by Hussain Al-Asadi (Iraq, Saudi Arabia – Documentary Feature): Fatima, 50, lives unmarried and alone in the Iraqi swamplands and keeps buffalo, chickens, a kitten and other animals. She describes her lonely and often hard life, but she would never move to the city, as she would perish there like a fish out of water.
Arab Films at New York Film Festival
Unfortunately there are no new Arab films playing at the New York Film Festival, which runs from September 29 – October 15 this year, but there will be a special screening of a newly restored Arab cinema classic.
The Dupes by Tewfik Saleh (1972)
Syria – Narrative Feature – Revivals
Set in the 1950s and adapted from assassinated artist, writer, and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) leader Ghassan Kanafani’s 1962 novella Men in the Sun, Tewfik Saleh’s 1972 masterpiece follows three Palestinian refugees—each man representing a different generation—as they seek safe passage from Iraq to Kuwait, where they hope to secure work and money to send to their families back home.
Every year Arab cinema gets more and more exciting and eclectic, and to keep that momentum going, we’ve got to make sure these filmmakers have our support! Buy your tickets to see these new movies when you can, and keep an eye out to see if any of them end up at the Arab Film Festival this November.