Catching up with a year of Arab film

BEIRUT: The cusp of 2018-19 was buzz time for Lebanese cineastes. “Capernaum” had debuted at Cannes, where it emerged with a jury prize. Nadine Labaki’s third feature was anointed to represent this country in the Oscars’ foreign language picture contest, with some wagering it might bring home American treasure too.

The mood among Beirut cinema lovers is less triumphant these days.

The pall of economic and financial crisis now gripping the country has thrown 2020’s film production prospects into uncertainty. Questions also linger on the exhibition side of things.

After Oct. 17, Metropolis Art Cinema closed as part of the cultural sector’s general strike in support of mass demonstrations against political incompetence and corruption. While several institutions have since reopened, Metropolis remains closed, despite the Metropolis Association’s desire to return to scheduled programming. It raises questions about whether Lebanon’s sole art house theatre will survive 2019.

In the past dozen years, Metropolis has become the premiere venue for internationally feted Arabic-language cinema. As The Daily Star glances back at significant titles to debut in 2019, it’s sobering to reflect that - unless they’ve already been projected at Metropolis - these films may never be screened in Beirut.

Three Lebanese titles captured festival adulation in 2019. The first of these, chronologically, was writer-director Ahmad Ghossein’s feature film debut “All This Victory,” debuting in the Venice Film Festival’s Critics Week program, where it emerged with three prizes.

Ghossein’s story is set in South Lebanon during Israel’s month-long 2006 war upon Lebanon. It follows Marwan, a Beiruti on the verge of migrating to Canada, as he drives to his family village to bring his father back to Beirut. Things don’t go according to plan.

Producer-writer-director Oualid Mouaness premiered “1982” at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the NETPAC award. Since then, Mouaness’ debut feature has taken audience awards and a FIPRESCI prize at various festivals.

“1982” is also set amidst an Israeli aggression, one staged when the filmmaker was in elementary school. The film uses the first day of the Israeli army’s 1982 sprint to Beirut as a disruptive framework for its young protagonist, Wissam, his classmates and teachers, whose minds are on more intimate concerns.

As the year wound to a close, Elie Kamal’s “Beirut Terminus” had its world premiere at the Cairo International Film Festival. The feature-length doc screened in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition and won the best nonfiction feature prize.

Using a range of filming styles and visual techniques - from fixed frame shots to drones to post-production tinkering - Kamal uses Lebanon’s abandoned rail infrastructure as the principal motif in his voiceover musings upon the country’s history and his place in it.

Though 2019 wasn’t a great year for film production in the MENA region, several Arabic-language titles did emerge to stir audiences and festivals, sometimes critics.

Perhaps the most feted title to emerge from the eastern side of the Arab world is “For Sama,” the collaboration of Syrian filmmaker Waad al-Kateab and U.K. documentarian Edward Watts. For five years, Kateab documented her physician husband and his colleagues as they struggled to keep an Aleppo hospital up and running, despite regime forces and their Russian allies’ intensified raids on the city. The film that emerged is one of the year’s more intensely emotional docs.

“For Sama” debuted at Cannes, where it won the Golden Eye Documentary Prize. Its subsequent 40-odd wins include the Audience Awards at IDFA and Toronto’s Hot Docs festival as well as the European Film Awards.

Another significant medically-themed doc to emerge from Syria this year is Feras Fayyad’s “The Cave,” which captures the lives and work of a group of female doctors labouring in Al-Ghouta. The bushel of prizes won by Fayyad’s film includes TIFF’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award and the Critics’ Choice Documentary Award.

The Mashreq also produced important fiction films in 2019, none more eagerly anticipated than “It Must Be Heaven,” the fourth feature of Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman, back after a decade-long hiatus. “Heaven” debuted at Cannes, winning a special mention and the FIPRESCI prize, but hasn’t yet accumulated masses of treasure.

Broadly speaking, the premises and deadpan humour of “Heaven” will be familiar to Suleiman’s fans. Like his past three features, it centers on ES (Suleiman), a taciturn figure moving across an episodic landscape marked by occupation, restriction and frustration. Among the new film’s departures is that it resides equally in France, the U.S., and Palestine.

Two films emerged from Iraqi filmmakers this year. Baghdad-born Swiss filmmaker Samir released his 18th film, “Baghdad in My Shadow,” a fiction addressing the conflict between secular Arab Muslims and Salafi tendencies among London’s Arab expats.

Mohanad Hayal’s feature film debut “Haifa Street” is set in the eponymous Baghdad neighbourhood in 2006, when sectarian conflict in the country was at its apogee. Hayal’s fiction centres Salam, a sniper, who ignores his captain’s orders and shoots a man. His defiance resonates among a knot of multiply interrelated characters. The cast includes Beirut-based actor Yumna Marwan, exploring a character that, while reminiscent of past roles, also transforms her.

Those interested in Arab cinema production and exhibition may be aware that Riyadh has declared itself open to cinema. The latest Saudi filmmaker to emerge with a promising first feature is Shahad Ameen, whose “Scales” premiered at Venice and went on to take the Tanit d’Bronze at Carthage.

Shot in sumptuous black-and-white and combining the talents of non-professional actors - including her young lead Basima Hajjar - with seasoned talent (most notably Israeli-Palestinian thesp Ashraf Barhom), “Scales” is straight-up art house fare. Not unlike a number of older Iranian titles, it tells the fantastical story of an isolated community whose central premise (here, girl-child sacrifice and the mermaid legend) suggests contemporary realities.

Several significant titles emerged from the Arab west this year, though none from Egypt, the Arab world’s oldest cinema industry, which continues to struggle with the economic conditions that helped foment a revolution in 2011.

For Sudan, though, 2019 was a great year.

Premiering at the Berlinale (where it won both the Panorama Audience Award for Documentary Film and the Glashutte Original Documentary Award), Suhaib Gasmelbari’s feature debut “Talking About Trees” is both an examination of the furtive birth and suffocation of Sudanese cinema and a profile of the handful of cinema pioneers that suffered it.

The main focus of “Talking About Trees,” however, is the (Kafkaesque, at times hilarious) struggle of a handful of cinema veterans to get permission to project a film in one of Omdurman’s abandoned cinemas.

Gasmelbari’s younger countryman Amjad Abu Alala released his debut feature “You Will Die at 20” at Venice Days (a parallel section of the Venice film festival), where it took the Luigi De Laurentiis Award, the first of many prizes.

Though Abu Alala’s film is a fiction - his protagonist, Muzamil, struggles beneath a prophecy that he wouldn’t live to see 21 - he uses the tale to erect a vibrant documentary love letter to traditional Sudanese culture.

As usual, Maghreb states released a number of significant titles engaged with contemporary social and cultural issues.

For two years running, a Moroccan filmmaker named Maryam has released a strong feature about women who find themselves pregnant out of wedlock - Maryam Touzani’s “Adam,” 2019, and Meryem Benm’ Barek-Aloïsi’s 2018 “Sofia” - both in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section.

This year, veteran Tunisian auteur Nouri Bouzid unveiled “The Scarecrows.” Bouzid’s tenth feature continues the trend in his recent films to address the country’s contemporary social issues. Here, a pair of Tunisian women returns home after having been imprisoned as sex slaves by Daaesh militants in Syria, only to find Tunis too is a prison.

Perhaps 2019’s most feted Tunisian work is “A Son,” the feature premiere of Mehdi Barsaoui, which debuted in Venice’s Horizons section. It won male lead Sami Bouajila the section’s acting award, then went on to take a bushel of prizes at CIFF.

Though located within the insecurity of contemporary Tunisia, and the reality of migration for many young families, Barsaoui’s story is an effective family melodrama. A couple’s apparently teflon relationship is thrown into chaos when their son is collateral damage in an insurgents’ attack upon security forces.

As The Daily Star went to press, Beirut was not the only Arab capital to be mired in crisis. It may be interesting to see how cinema responds to this ferment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 31, 2019, on page 8.




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