The Arab Film Moment

Still from the documentary Karama Has No Walls, directed by Sara Ishaq (courtesy of the film website)

Still from Yemeni documentary Karama Has No Walls, directed by Sara Ishaq. (Courtesy of the film's website)

Without a doubt, the Arab Spring has had a significant impact on Arab filmmakers who document and comment on the unveiling realities in their region. It has also awakened a new level of curiosity from the international arena, which is now far more interested in dissecting the various socio-political phenomena of the Arab World.

This growing interest has created an opportunity for Arab filmmakers to expose the global issues that are shattering their landscapes, or to point to the more detailed day-to-day realities underlying much larger contexts. As such, the Arab uprisings feature prominently among the predominant themes in many Middle Eastern cinematic productions—documentaries in particular. Even filmmakers who do not narrate the Arab Spring directly also contribute to the representation of the region by depicting its hidden truths.

Recently, a large number of features, documentaries and short films released by Arab filmmakers have been screened at international festivals and many of them are receiving recognition at the major awards ceremonies. The world now awaits the upcoming Oscars ceremony scheduled for March 2. The Academy’s announcement of its final list of nominees echoed across the Arab media; three Arab films will compete in this year's Oscars in three different categories: The Square, directed by Egyptian–American Jehane Noujaim, is among the nominations for Best Documentary Film; Karama Has No Walls by Sara Ishaq, a Yemen-Scottish filmmaker, is in the running for Best Documentary Short Film, while Palestinian film Omar, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, is up for a Best Foreign Language Film award.

The Square and Karama Has No Walls encapsulate the recent revolutions, whether by capturing the entire context of the revolution three years later (The Square) or through pointing to a distressing detail that represents one of the many grievances of the revolutions (Karama Has No Walls).

Already winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, The Square creatively rounds up the Egyptian revolution, looking at the hopes and aspirations of the young revolutionaries of early 2011, the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, and subsequently the short-lived rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, which came to an end in 2013. Most recently The Square won Noujaim the documentary prize at the Directors Guild of America Awards.

Karama Has No Walls has also already picked up awards. It transports the audience back to the painful events of March 18, 2011, a day known as the “Friday of Karama” (Karama meaning “dignity” in Arabic) in Yemen, and a turning point in the uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, when security forces and government supporters reportedly killed over fifty and injured over 100 protesters in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a.

Hany Abu-Assad's Omar looks back into occupied Palestine where main character Omar is trapped in a struggle for individual and collective freedom as his identity is put to the test.

Though they still wait for the Academy Awards results, understandably the sheer fact that these three films were nominated is a remarkable achievement for their creators.

But the Arab cinema world in general has enjoyed a considerable share in recent awards and nominations, competing at the BAFTAs, the Berlinale, and enjoying other recognitions. Return to Homs, a documentary by Syrian director Talal Derki, was last month awarded the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival—one of the world’s major events dedicated to independent cinema. The film is a shocking insight into a Syrian city devastated by war and its effects on the lives of two young men. Also last month, A Human Being, by Egyptian filmmaker Islam Bilal, won the top prize in the Arab Mobile Film Festival. Held in Amsterdam, the festival focuses on films recorded on mobile phones. In 2011, Bilal won the first place prize at the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival for The Spark.

Released in 2012, the Saudi Arabian–German full-length movie Wadjda is among the nominees for this year’s BAFTA awards in the Best Foreign Film category. Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, and co-financed by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal and German producers Gerhard Meixner and Roman Paul, Wadjda is the first film by a Saudi Arabian female director—one emerging from a country that does not have an active film industry. Wadjda tells the story of a young girl, a misfit, from Riyadh who wishes to buy a bike in order to compete with Abdulla, a boy from the neighborhood. Mansour's film aims at creating a poignant social criticism of the pressures that rule a community's sense of right and wrong. The film has scooped many awards and recognitions from international film festivals, including the Muhr Arab Award at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2012, and three awards at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. It has also been selected for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards. Though it did not make it into the final five, it was the first Saudi Arabian nomination at the ceremony.

Another Arab film up for awards this year is Om Amira, a short movie by the Egyptian filmmaker Naji Ismail, which was selected as a nominee for the Berlinale Shorts section of the Berlin International Film Festival this year, due to take place in February. The film is a moving account of poverty as experienced by the Egyptian lower middle class, depicted through the main character of Om Amira (Amira's Mother).

This year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, ending next week, also includes a number of Arab films, with entries from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon and Syria, covering a range of themes: from questioning the revolution in Lettre à Mohamed (Tunisia), to capturing the sensation of threat in Rags and Tatters (Egypt), to arranged marriages in Mariage blanc, (Austria/Morocco) to uncovering homosexuality (a taboo topic in many Arab cultures) in L'armée du salut (France/Morocco).

Many festivals either dedicate all their efforts to Arab cinema or create specialized sections highlighting the region. With such a wide array of films currently emerging from the Arab World and increased international interest and support towards the fruits of budding young filmmakers, it is very probable that the upcoming months will bring international rewards to artists from Arab countries.


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