The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

The Academy Awards, known colloquially as “The Oscars”, is an annual awards ceremony that recognizes achievement in the film industry by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year marks the 92nd year of the awards with the first award being presented in 1929. This year’s ceremony will take place on Sunday, February 9th. In preparation for this year’s ceremony, we have prepared for you a comprehensive history of Arab cinema at the Oscars, broken down by decade.

Editor’s note: the Oscars are always awarded the following year. In other words, this year’s Oscars celebrate the best films of 2019. This is why you will not see a 2020 category in our timeline – all films competing on Sunday are listed under 2019.

1929-1949

Though The Academy Awards began in 1929, the history of Arab cinema at the Oscars doesn’t start until the 29th ceremony, held in 1957, after the Best Foreign Language Film category was introduced. Up until 1956, foreign-language films had been honored with the Special Achievement Award. As of 2020, the category has been renamed Best International Feature Film. Because of this, there is no presence of Arab films, nor of many international films at all, in the Oscars prior to the late 1950s.

1950-1959

Film still from Cairo Station

Our history of Arab cinema at the Oscars starts with the first Arab film to be submitted to the Academy Awards, Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station. The film was submitted for consideration by Egypt in 1959. While it did not receive the nomination, it does mark the beginning of the history of Arab cinema at the Oscars.

Egypt was the first Arab nation to submit to the Academy Awards, and is the Arab nation with the largest film industry, however Egyptian films have never received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Egypt has submitted 34 films to date.

1960-1969

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Film still from Battle of Algiers

The first Arabic-language film to ever be nominated is The Battle of Algiers. It is an Italian-Algerian historical war film from Italian writer and director Gillo Pontecorvo, shot in Algeria. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967 and then for Best Screenplay and Best Director in 1969. 

 

Film still from Z

The first film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film by an Arab country was a film entitled Z, an Algerian-French political thriller directed by Greek-French film director Costa-Gavras. It was submitted by Algeria in 1969 and it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, making it the first win for an Arab country! This despite the film not being in Arabic or made by an Arab filmmaker. It was also nominated for Best Picture the same year but lost to Midnight Cowboy.

 

Film still of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia

The 1960s also saw the first Arab actor nomination in 1962. Egyptian actor Omar Sharif received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Lawrence of Arabia.

1970-1979

No Arab films, filmmakers or actors were nominated for Academy Awards in the 1970s.

1980-1989

Though the 1970s were barren, the 1980s saw a few nominations.

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Film still from Le Bal

In 1984, Algeria received another nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category for a film entitled Le BalThis film was an Italian-Franco-Algerian film, directed by Italian filmmaker Ettore Scola. The film spans about fifty years of French society, through the lens of a single ballroom. The film lost the award that year to Fanny and Alexander.

F. Murray Abraham with his Oscar

The following year, F. Murray Abraham, an American actor with Syrian roots, won the award for Best Actor for his role in Amadeus. This marked the first nomination for an Arab or Arab-American actor in this category! We would like to note that Abraham is of Assyrian descent, an ethnic group that does not consider themselves Arab. Despite that, we felt his win was still important to note in our history of Arab cinema at the Oscars as he was the first actor with roots in the Arab world to win this award.

1990-1999

After the 1980s, more and more Arab filmmakers and Arab stories began to be recognized every decade.

In 1992, the first documentary about an Arab country was nominated in the Best Documentary category. Fires of Kuwait, an American film directed by David Douglas, focused on the international effort to extinguish Kuwait’s burning oilfields in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb

In 1995, Algeria received yet another Best Foreign Language film nomination, this time for a film actually directed by an Algerian filmmaker! Dust of Lifedirected by Rachid Bouchareb, told the story of orphaned boys from southern Vietnam who hatch a plan to get away from a re-education camp after the war ends. The film lost to Antonia’s Line but this is only the first of multiple nominations for Bouchareb.

 

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Filmmaker Atom Egoyan

In 1997, Egyptian-Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan received two nominations for his work on The Sweet Hereafter, a film based on a book by the same name. He was nominated for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. While he did not win in either category, he was the first Arab filmmaker to be nominated in either category and the only Arab filmmaker to ever receive the coveted Best Director nomination in the history of Arab cinema at the Oscars.

2000-2009

The new millennium brought some more Best Foreign Language Film nominations for Arab cinema, but it came with some issues and controversies along with it.

In 2002, Palestine asked to submit their first film to the Academy Awards – Divine Intervention directed by Elia Suleiman. The submission was refused on the basis that Palestine was not internationally recognized as a country. This decision was controversial, especially since other entities without international recognition, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, had been allowed to participate in the past. The Academy eventually changed their decision and allowed the film to compete the following year.

Film still from Paradise Now

While Divine Intervention did not receive the nomination, the first Arab film nominated for Best Foreign Language film that decade ended up being a Palestinian submission. The film was Paradise Now, directed by Hany Abu-Assad. It received a nomination in 2005. Pro-Israeli groups pushed back against the use of the term “Palestine” for the film’s country of submission. The Academy changed their website to say “Palestinian Authority” but this decision was decried by Abu-Assad. Ultimately, the film was presented as a submission from the “Palestinian Territories”. Paradise Now lost the award to South Africa’s Tsotsi.

 

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Film still from Days of Glory

The following year, Algerian film Days of Glory also received a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, making that the second nomination for director Rachid Bouchareb. Days of Glory tells the story of the Algerian soldiers who fought alongside the French in World War II and the bigotry and unfair treatment they received.

Film still from Iraq in Fragments

As we continue with our history of Arab cinema at the Oscars, the early 2000s also saw another handful of nominations for documentaries about the Arab world by American filmmakers. The first nomination was for Promises in 2001, a film which examined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of seven children living in the West Bank and Jerusalem. In 2006 two documentaries about modern day Iraq, Iraq in Fragments and My Country, My Country, were also nominated. Both films told the stories and struggles of the people in the midst of war and occupation. None of these films won an Oscar.

2002 also marked the first Arab nomination in a short film category in the history of Arab cinema at the Oscars. The American short film Johnny Flynton was nominated for Best Live-Action Short. It was based on the true story of a boxer by the same name. It was directed by Palestinian-German filmmaker Lexi Alexander.

2010-2019

By the 2010s, Arab cinema began to receive even greater and greater recognition by the Academy in a variety of categories. The decade saw the first ever nominations for films from Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Yemen and Lebanon.

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Before we get to the nominations, we’s like to remember a fun campaign that was launched in 2014 called Arabs Crash Hollywood. Commissioned by Cinemoz, a video on-demand platform in the Arab world, Syrian graphic designer Michel Achkar gave the official movie posters of the Oscar-nominated films a classical Arab makeover as a show of support for the Arab films nominated that year. This continued as an annual tradition for Cinemoz through 2016. 

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

In the category of Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film the following films received nominations:

Outside The Law from Algeria was nominated in 2010. This was the third nomination for Rachid Bouchareb, making him the most nominated Arab filmmaker in history! The movie is about three Algerian brothers in France, set against the Algerian independence movement and the Algerian War.

Omar from Palestine was nominated in 2013. It was the second nomination for director Hany Abu-Assad. It tells the story of a Palestinian baker named Omar who agrees to work as an informant after he’s tricked into an admission of guilt by association in the wake of an Israeli soldier’s killing.

Timbuktu from Mauritania was nominated in 2014. This drama, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, tells the story of a cattle herder and his family who reside in the dunes of Timbuktu and find their quiet lives disrupted by a group of Jihadists.

Theeb from Jordan was nominated in 2015. Directed by Naji Abu Nowar, it is the story of a young Bedouin boy living in the Ottoman province of Hijaz during World War I who must hastily come-of-age as he embarks on a perilous desert journey to guide a British officer to his secret destination.

The Insult from Lebanon was nominated in 2017. This film, directed by Ziad Doueiri, is the story of an emotional exchange between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee that escalates until the the men end up in a court case that gets national attention and reveals how they’ve both been affected by traumatic historical events in their youths.

Capernaum from Lebanon was nominated in 2018. This film by Nadine Labaki is a heartbreaking story about a 12-year-old boy named Zain who leaves home in search of a better life but ends up serving a five-year sentence for a violent crime, during which he decides to sue his parents for neglect.

None of these films won an Oscar.

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Film still from The Square

The following films received nominations for the Oscar for Best Documentary:

5 Broken Cameras was nominated in 2011. This Palestinian-Israeli film is a first-hand account of the protests in Bil’in, a village in the West Bank. It is shown through the lens of five cameras owned by Palestinian farmer and filmmaker Emad Burnat. The story is structured around the destruction of each of these cameras as Burnat captures the struggle around him. The film was co-directed by Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi.

The Square was nominated in 2013. It is an Egyptian-American film by Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer. It depcits the ongoing Egyptian Crisis, beginning with the Revolution in 2011 at Tahrir Square.

Last Man in Aleppo was nominated in 2017. It is the first of two nominations for Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad. In the film, Fayyad documents life in Aleppo during the war, with a focus on the search-and-rescue missions held by the White Helmets.

Of Fathers and Sons was nominated in 2018. Director Tala Derki gained access to a village in his Syrian homeland controlled by the al-Nusra front and documents the daily life of the Osama’s, a radical Islamist family.

None of these films won the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Film still from Ave Maria

The following films received nominations for the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short:

Asad was nominated in 2012. It’s a South African film by American director Bryan Buckley. It features a cast of entirely Somali refugees who live in South Africa. It tells the story of Asad, a young Somali boy coming-of-age as he struggles to survive in his war-torn land.

Ave Maria was nominated in 2015. It is directed by British-Palestinian filmmaker Basil Khalil. In the film a family of religious Israeli settlers has to deal with their car breaking down in a rural area of the West Bank, where they must seek the help of five nuns to get back home.

Ennemis intérieurs was nominated in 2016. It is a French film directed by French-Algerian filmmaker Sélim Azzazi. In the movie, an interview at a local police station turns into an inquisition during which a French-Algerian born man sees himself accused of protecting the identities of possible terrorists.

None of these films won the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short.

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Film still from The White Helmets

The following films received nominations to the Oscar for Best Documentary Short:

Karama Has No Walls was nominated in 2013. This film about the Yemeni Revolution was directed and produced by Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq.

Watani: My Homeland was nominated in 2016. German filmmaker and photographer Marcel Mettelsiefen followed the story of a family as they escape the Syrian Civil War and attempt to start a new life in Germany

The White Helmets was also nominated in 2016. This film, directed by British filmmaker Orlando von Einsiedel, follows the daily operations of a group of volunteer rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets. While the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, the ceremony took place in February 2017, right after Executive Order 13769 (better known as the “Muslim Ban”) came into effect. This meant that Syrian cinematographer Khaled Khateeb was denied entry to the United States and was unable to attend the ceremony.

Rami Malek at the 91st Academy Awards

During the last Oscar ceremony, which aired in 2019, Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek won the award for Best Actor for his role in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018). He, similarly to F. Murray Abraham, has a complicated identity when it comes to the label “Arab” as his family is Coptic, an ethnic group that also does not consider themselves Arab. We record his win in our history of Arab cinema at the Oscars as he is the first actor of Egyptian descent to win this award and he recognizes that he is an important role model to many young Arab people.

There are four Arab films that received nominations for the 2020 Academy Awards and whose fate will be decided at this year’s Oscar ceremony on February 9th! We are so excited to have supported them all, three were shown at our very own Arab Film Festival (#AFF2019) and we co presented The Cave at last year’s AFI Fest. The nominees are…

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Film still from For Sama

Films nominated to the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature:

The Cave is a Syrian-Danish film directed by Feras Fayyad. The film is a companion piece to Fayyad’s film The Last Man in Aleppo. It profiles Amani Ballour, a female doctor in Ghouta who is operating a makeshift hospital in a cave during the Syrian Civil War. The documentary has been called “A hard-hitting documentary with imagery as powerful as its message.”

For Sama is also a Syrian documentary. It is directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts. Framed as letter to her daughter Sama, the film shows Waad Al-Kateab’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo. The film begins when she is an 18-year-old student and continues as she falls in love, gives birth to her daughter and works alongside her husband to run a hospital to help the innocent victims of war as conflict engulfs the city. The film has received universal acclaim and has already received a number of awards, including recently winning The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for Best Documentary.

The history of Arab cinema at the Oscars

Film still from Nefta Football Club

Films nominated to the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film:

Brotherhood is a Tunisian film directed by Meryam Joobeur. It explores the tensions within a Tunisian family when a man who has been away for several years returns home with a new Syrian wife who wears the full niqab, igniting his father’s suspicions that his son has been working for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The film has received a number of festival awards and was named in the TIFF’s year-end Top Ten list. You can watch the film here.

Nefta Football Club is a film directed by French filmmaker Yves Piat. It tells the story of two young brothers in Tunisia, Abdallah and Mohammed, who come across a donkey with headphones on its ears and bags full of white powder on its back. They decide to bring those bags back to their village with two very different ideas of how to make the most of their discovery. This film has received great recognition as well, having been selected for nearly 100 festivals and receiving more that 65 awards already. You can watch it here.

We are so proud of all the Arab films and filmmakers who have been recognized by The Academy over the years and are looking forward to celebrate them for decades to come. We’re looking forward to this year’s ceremony and wish all the nominees the best of luck!

Psst: I made a list with all these movies on Letterboxd and where you can find all my favorite films.