The 96th Academy Awards are set to take place on March 10, 2024, to celebrate the films of 2023. Among the statues given out each year is the Oscar for Best International Feature Film, which honors a feature length picture produced outside of the United States, predominantly not in the English language. As of today, fourteen films from the Arab world have been nominated for the award since 1956, with one win for 1969’s Z, submitted by Algeria (although the film is not in Arabic and not helmed by an Arab filmmaker.)
The nominees for this category are not chosen in the conventional way that, say, Best Picture or Best Documentary are. A given country (not the filmmakers) must choose only one film to submit to the Academy to be considered. Each country’s submission later has a chance to end up on the Oscars Shortlist, where they are narrowed down to fifteen films before the final five nominations are announced. The statue for the winning film does not go to its director, but rather to the country itself.
For example, in 2019, France’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire did not receive any nominations at the Oscars despite being a critical darling; the CNC, part of the French Ministry of Culture, had chosen to submit the crime thriller Les Misérables instead. The film was later shortlisted and went on to a nomination. Morocco’s 2019 submission, Maryam Touzani’s Adam, was not shortlisted, losing its ability to be nominated – in 2022, her film The Blue Caftan made the shortlist, but did not go on to be nominated.
The 2010s has seen more Arab films at the Oscars than decades past, which means more and more films are in consideration each year. For the 96th ceremony, the submitted films must have been released theatrically in their respective countries from December 1, 2022 to October 21, 2023; 88 countries have submitted their films. With the Oscars shortlist set to be unveiled on December 21, we thought we’d round up all the film submissions from the Arab world, to root for their chances and to celebrate another incredible year for Arab cinema.
Here’s every Arab film submitted for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film, 2023.
Egypt: Voy! Voy! Voy! directed by Omar Hilal
Since 1958, Egypt has submitted a total of thirty-six features to the Oscars, and not one has been nominated or shortlisted for the award. Voy! Voy! Voy! would be the first Egyptian film to achieve either feat.
Synopsis: “What would you be willing to do to escape an intolerable, dead-end living situation? How far would you compromise on basic ethics? For Hassan and his Egyptian pals in Voy! Voy! Voy!, any way out is preferable to the rut they’re in. Europe beckons as a realm of utopian opportunity and a privileged path to success is offered by sports. Hassan’s choice is novel: football as played by the visually impaired (the title refers to the Spanish word for ‘I’m here’ used by players to signal their position). Little does he realise, however, how widely shared his bold playing-blind deception may be…
Voy! Voy! Voy! is a rousing, fast-paced comedy based on a true story. Filmmaker Omar Hilal has spent a decade perfecting his visual storytelling craft in commercials. He is greatly aided by Mohamed Farrag in the central role, who completely understands the cinematic irony of performing, in small but telling gestures, for the delectation of we spectators attuned to Hassan’s game. The film, a box-office hit in Egypt, and the country’s submission for 2024 Oscars consideration, shows the potency of global popular cinema’s tropes. While posing pertinent social and moral questions, it also allows us the frisson of enjoying political incorrectness and outrageous behaviour.” – Adrian Martin, IFFR
Iraq: Hanging Gardens, directed by Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji
Since 2005, eleven Iraqi films have been submitted to the Academy Awards, with none of them being nominated or shortlisted. Hanging Gardens, which walked away with the award for Best Film at last year’s Red Sea International Film Festival, would be the first Iraqi film recognized by the Oscars.
Synopsis: “Brothers As’ad (12) and Taha (28) barely scrape a living as rubbish pickers in ‘Hanging Gardens’—the local nickname for Baghdad’s smouldering dumps—yet they make the most of what they have. Then one day, As’ad discovers an American sex doll. When he brings the taboo item home and presents her as a thing of beauty, Taha assaults his little brother for ruining their reputation. As’ad retreats to Hanging Gardens to make a new home for himself and his miraculous find.
When As’ad and his friend, Amir, discover the doll can speak, they teach her the language of seduction in Arabic and set her to work. Business rockets, raising their profile lucratively with local teens and dangerously with the local patriarch’s enforcers. As’ad questions their exploitation of the doll, yet before he can save her from further degradation, she’s kidnapped. As’ad and Amir go after the prime suspect, only to discover that he’s turned informant. The patriarch has As’ad and Amir kidnapped so that he can exact his own cruel and humiliating punishments. As’ad survives to complete the journey he began and reconcile himself to the choices he’s made on his own terms.” – La Biennale di Venezia
Ireland: In the Shadow of Beirut, directed by Stephen Gerard Kelly, Garry Keane
In the Shadow of Beirut is a collaborative production between Ireland, the UK, Lebanon and Germany. Directors Kelly and Keane are both Irish, and the film has therefore been submitted by Ireland. The same scenario played out with 2019’s Gaza, a documentary about civilians living in the occupied Palestinian territory, which was not shortlisted.
Synopsis: “From the makers of Gaza (2019), comes a new cinematic odyssey, penetrating deep below the surface of Beirut, a still beautiful, yet deeply troubled city on the brink of financial collapse. The film weaves together the stories of four characters living in the neighbourhoods of Sabra and Shatila struggling to survive with dignity and decency amidst unimaginable hardship. This intimate, character-driven study bears witness to the stark reality of life for the protagonists and for others who fight for survival in a nation suffering one of the worst global financial meltdowns on record.” – Sunniva O’Flynn, Irish Film Institute
Jordan: Inshallah A Boy, directed by Amjad Al-Rasheed
Jordan has previously submitted five films to the Academy Awards. If nominated, Inshallah A Boy would be the second Jordanian film honored in the category, after Theeb in 2015.
Synopsis: “Marking the arrival of a sensitive and astute new voice in cinematic realism, Inshallah a Boy is the rousing debut feature by Jordanian director Amjad Al Rasheed — the first-ever feature from Jordan to premiere at Cannes — grounded in a wrenching lead performance from Palestinian actor Mouna Hawa.
The narrative is set in motion when Nawal (Hawa) is left facing destitution after the sudden passing of her husband. In the absence of any formal inheritance agreement, her brother-in-law Rifqi (Hitham Omari) is quick to swoop in under the auspices of current inheritance laws to exercise his claim on not just the couple’s apartment, but guardianship of Nawal’s young daughter Nora (Seleena Rababah). 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.
At once contained and quietly kaleidoscopic, Inshallah a Boy offers a cultural cross-section of contemporary Amman — from the wealthy Christian household where Nawal works and where she is brought together with a woman experiencing a personal crisis that could help her situation — to cramped legal offices and back-alley clinics. With a lucid eye, Al Rasheed effectively captures Nawal’s mounting claustrophobia, as immediate and extended family, neighbours, and even a mouse that has taken over her kitchen, box her into an ever tighter space. But it is in the film’s profound moments of solidarity where Al Rasheed offers glimmers of hope and possibility.” – Nataleah Hunter-Young, TIFF
Morocco: The Mother of All Lies directed by Asmae El Moudir
Two Moroccan films have previously made the Oscars shortlist after being submitted: 2011’s Omar Killed Me and 2022’s The Blue Caftan. The Mother of All Lies would be the first Moroccan film to be nominated.
Synopsis: “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.
In her early thirties, El Moudir is grappling to understand the mentalities of her mother, Ouardia, and grandmother, Zahra. For years, she has been troubled that no photos exist of her childhood. Her mother can produce just one, but El Moudir has doubts that it’s even her in the photo. Her grandmother, a fiercely intimidating presence, holds a strong position against photography, even as she allows El Moudir to film her.
One of the pivotal moments in the neighbourhood’s history that El Moudir plays out in the model took place before she was born. In June 1981, citizens held a strike to protest rising food prices in what became known as the Bread Riots. The military cracked down with violent reprisals and arrests. One of the many victims was a 12-year-old local girl, Fatima. The chapter has been erased from history books, but the traumas are still deeply felt. El Moudir’s innovative path of exploration through this and other stories demonstrates the power of art to confront hidden memories.” – Thom Powers, TIFF
Palestine: Bye Bye Tiberias, directed by Lina Soualem
The first Palestinian film to ever be submitted to the Oscars, Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, caused controversy; despite being nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, producer Humbert Balsam claimed that after asking the Academy if the film could run for (what was then called) Best Foreign Language Film, the answer was no, as “Palestine is not a state we recognize in our rules.” An Academy spokesperson denied that a decision was made on the issue, but was met with backlash. The following year the film was eligible for consideration. Bye Bye Tiberias would be the third submission from Palestine to be nominated, after Paradise Now and Omar.
Synopsis: “At the age of 23, Hiam Abbass…made the difficult decision to leave her grandmother, mother, and seven sisters in the Palestinian village of Deir Hanna to pursue acting in France. Years later, with her daughter, the film’s director Lina Soualem, in tow, Abbass began annual returns to her rapidly changing childhood home during the summer, each of their visits captured on home video by Soualem’s father, French actor Zinedine Soualem.
Abbass would take Soualem to Lake Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have walked on water. Abbass’s grandparents, Um Ali and Hosni Tabari, were expelled from Tiberias in 1948. From the water, Abbass would show Soualem the world she was also a part of: an Arab world divided by conflict and colonial interference that redetermined the landscape, still joined however by family, mountains, rivers, and valleys with Syria to the east, Lebanon to the north, Jordan to the south.
Braiding together old and new family records with pre-1948 archival material, including poetry and personal narrative, Soualem — in a trenchant and assured follow-up to her feature debut Their Algeria — tells a meditative story about four generations of women working hard to mend the seams of multiple separations, forced and chosen.” – Nataleah Hunter-Young, TIFF
Saudi Arabia: Alhamour H.A., directed by Abdulelah Alqurashi
Saudi Arabia has previously submitted six films to the Academy, starting in 2013. None were nominated or made the shortlist, so Alhamour M.A. would be the first Saudi Arabian film to be recognized.
Synopsis: “Alhamour H.A. is a true rag-to-riches story inspired by true events. Set in the early 2000s, the film follows Hamed, a security guard looking for a way to make a living in a world that doesn’t respect him. Along with his childhood friend Sully and his shady associate Abu Azza, Hamed discovers that selling prepaid phone cards can bring quick profits. However, as Hamed’s business grows, so do the shady dealings he engages in to maintain his wealth and power, so do the authorities approach him and threaten to change everything.” – MAFF
Sudan: Goodbye Julia, directed by Mohamed Kordofani
Sudan submitted their very first film to the Oscars, You Will Die at Twenty, in 2020; Goodbye Julia would be the first Sudanese film to make the shortlist or receive a nomination.
Synopsis: “Sudan’s first film at Cannes…is a powerful drama set against its 2011 split into two countries, the story of two extraordinary women brought together by the violence of men and racist politics. Mona (Eiman Yousif) is a Muslim woman who, when driving while distracted, accidentally hits a young boy and drives off in a panic. The boy’s mother is the titular Julia (Siren Riak), a Christian woman from the south, whose family is facing religious prejudice despite temporary peace accords. In the wake of tragic events brought about by the hit-and-run, Julia goes to work for Mona, and a fragile friendship develops despite their differences in religion and social standing. Buried deceptions are at play, however, involving Julia’s husband’s disappearance and Mona’s thankless marriage. In addition to eliciting two riveting central performances, debut director Mohamed Kordofani seamlessly interweaves personal and political themes, unifying these elements in vibrant and resonant fashion.” – Rod Armstrong, MVFF
Tunisia: Four Daughters, directed by Kaouther Ben Hania
Ben Hania’s previous film, The Man Who Sold His Skin, was nominated for Best International Feature at the 2021 Oscars ceremony. If nominated, Four Daughters would become be the second Tunisian film honored. It recently won the Gotham Award for Best Documentary Feature, and is widely expected to be shortlisted.
Synopsis: “Oscar-nominated Tunisian writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania makes her first appearance at the Festival with her richest slow-study character portrait to date. Four Daughters is a documentary that bends the edges of narrative form in careful service to the stories of brave, bold, and complicated women.
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 — Ichraq Matar and Nour Karoui — to step into the places of the missing sisters. And when the memories they revisit together become too difficult, acclaimed Tunisian-Egyptian actor Hend Sabri (Noura’s Dream, TIFF ’19) takes on the role of Olfa. The result is part observational wonder and part performance masterclass, as Olfa and her daughters recreate an intimate tableau to negotiate their own unique perspectives on the trauma they share, carving out complex space in the retelling of history.
Ben Hania’s patient visual treatment and signature cinematic dynamism mirror the women’s evolving characters, as their inquiry transforms and turns inward to process the grief they carry and the broad range of their survival. Co-winner of the Golden Eye for Best Documentary at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this film is a study of raw honesty and a glimpse at love in its most painful form.” – Nataleah Hunter-Young, TIFF
Yemen: The Burdened, directed by Amr Gamal
Yemen has previously submitted two feature films for the Academy’s consideration, including Gamal’s debut, 10 Days Before the Wedding. The Burdened would be the first film from the country to be shortlisted or nominated.
Synopsis: “Isra’a lives with her husband Ahmed and their three children in the old port city of Aden in southern Yemen. Their everyday lives are shaped by the civil war – which means military checks in the streets, frequent power cuts, and having to haul water from the street to the kitchen. Ahmed used to work for television, but after several salary cheques were not paid, he is now earning his money as a driver. When Isra’a unexpectedly becomes pregnant, the couple faces a crisis. They both know they cannot afford a fourth child: they are about to move to a cheaper flat and the children’s school fees are due. Together they decide on an abortion. An odyssey begins in which a doctor friend becomes a key figure.
A feature film from Yemen is a great rarity. Here, director Amr Gamal has chosen to fictionalise a real-life story that occurred within his circle of friends. Set against the backdrop of one of the world’s most devastating civil wars, this sensitive family drama provides us with a glimpse into the society of a country largely unknown beyond its borders.” – Berlinale
With that, we’ve covered all of the submissions from the Arab world at this year’s Academy Awards. The shortlist will be revealed on December 21; many are predicting Four Daughters to make the list, with a small chance for Bye Bye Tiberias and In the Shadow of Beirut. Anything is possible, so make sure you follow AFMI on our socials for updates. If you’re interested in the history of Arab films at the Oscars, check out our previous article, The History of Arab Cinema at the Oscars (last updated 2021.)
In the meantime, make sure to keep each of the mentioned films on your radar, and to always #SupportArabCinema!