Arab Filmmakers Tackle Taboo Subjects in Venice, Toronto Festival Films

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This fall, Arab filmmakers will be out in force at such prestigious international fests as Venice and Toronto. Venice alone boasts six features from first- and second-time Arab directors in its official sections, plus an additional six works-in-progress at its Final Cut Production Bridge. Meanwhile, Toronto opens with “The Swimmers,” a drama from U.K. helmer Sally El Hosaini based on the journey of Syrian sisters and Olympic hopefuls Yusra and Sara Mardini, who fled the war in their home country for Germany. Yusra competed in the 2016 and 2021 Summer Olympics. An additional six Arab films will screen at the Canadian fest.

Dek: Arab filmmakers embrace genres and issues as festivals and distributors take notice

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By Alissa Simon

This fall, Arab filmmakers will be out in force at such prestigious international fests as Venice and Toronto. Venice alone boasts six features from first- and second-time Arab directors in its official sections, plus an additional six works-in-progress at its Final Cut Production Bridge. Meanwhile, Toronto opens with “The Swimmers,” a drama from U.K. helmer Sally El Hosaini based on the journey of Syrian sisters and Olympic hopefuls Yusra and Sara Mardini, who fled the war in their home country for Germany. Yusra competed in the 2016 and 2021 Summer Olympics. An additional six Arab films will screen at the Canadian fest.

Looking at the titles chosen for top international festivals as well as the theatrical and streaming pickups of the past several years, some trends emerge in the new Arab cinema offerings. Independent film curator Rasha Salti expresses the opinion of many industry figures when she cites a “far more daring formal language, a greater variety of genres and a cinema that dares to confront the taboos of society.”

Certainly, the Venice titles illustrate this diversity and boldness. Venice Days opener “Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous,” the sophomore feature from Franco-Lebanese director Wissam Charaf, finds a fresh and appealing approach to social issues through minimalist drama and deadpan humor. Fyzal Boulifa, a U.K. helmer of Moroccan heritage, combines melodrama, neo-realism and sexual frankness to compelling effect in the story of a mother and son on the fringes of society in “The Damned Don’t Cry.” Meanwhile, “The Last Queen,” the feature debut of Franco-Algerian couple Damien Ounouri and Adila Bendimerad, is a gorgeous costume drama with a feisty feminist edge set in 1516, the time of Barbarossa’s conquest of Algiers.

Another example of confronting taboos comes from this year’s Cannes FIPRESCI prizewinner, “The Blue Caftan,” about a closeted tailor in the Casablanca medina. The film’s Moroccan producer-co-writer Nabil Ayouch and director-writer Maryam Touzani agree that Arab cinema is now tackling more sensitive subjects. “This new freedom of tone is salutary and reveals the dynamism of Arab societies,” Ayouch says. The film, which makes its North American premiere in Toronto, will be released stateside by Strand.

Talent crossing over from the Arab world to English-speaking countries is an ongoing development. One of the latest to make that journey is Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab (“Cairo 678,” “Clash”), lead director on Marvel Studios limited series “Moon Knight,” a hit for Disney+.

Diab’s breakthrough has also brought international recognition to some of his key crew, such as Emmy-nominated composer Hesham Nazih, now an AMPAS member, and Ahmed Hafez, the first Egyptian editor to be part of ACE. Meanwhile, Arab actors currently making a splash include the British-Lebanese Razane Jammal in the Netflix series “The Sandman,” Palestinian-Jordanian Tara Abboud in the upcoming Disney+ series “Culprits” and Egyptian-British Fady El Sayed in “Gangs of London.”

While it may not yet constitute a new wave, there’s a remarkable burst of filmmaking energy coming from Sudan. In 2019, producer-director-writer Amjad Abu Alala won Venice’s Lion of the Future Award, the first of many kudos, for his debut, “You Will Die At 20.” The following year, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s documentary “Talking About Trees,” which follows four “involuntarily retired” filmmakers as they try to open a cinema, launched in Berlin and claimed multiple festival prizes. Now, Egyptian film analyst Alaa Karkouti reports that his agency MAD Solutions has three Sudanese projects in the pipeline, one of which, “Goodbye Julia,” written and helmed by Mohmed Kordofani, will begin shooting in October.

Not long ago, cinemas barely existed in Saudi Arabia. Now the desert kingdom offers substantial financial support for their films and their box office figures are the highest of the Arab countries. Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF), launched in 2021, aims to be a crucial springboard for a new wave of creatives to showcase their work and network with the international industry.

RSIFF managing director Shivani Pandya Malhotra notes that the fest’s Red Sea Fund encourages and supports Arab and African filmmakers with development, production and post-production financing. “I’m delighted to see five of the films we have supported in Venice: ‘Nezouh’ and ‘Hanging Gardens’ in Horizons Extra; ‘Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous’ and ‘The Last Queen’ in Venice Days; and ‘Queens,’ which will close the Venice Critics Week,” she says.

Malhotra’s shout-out to the Red Sea Fund grantees highlights another important trend in auteur Arab cinema — not only are the films screened at festivals the products of multiple co-production countries, they may also be the beneficiaries of several festival funding schemes.

When the funding and business hubs provided by the now-shuttered Dubai and Abu Dhabi festivals ended, it was a blow to Arab filmmaking, but the transformation of the Tribeca-Doha Film Festival into the Doha Film Institute, which has funded hundreds of works, helped fill the gap.

So, too, has Egypt’s El Gouna Festival, although El Gouna is now taking a pause. Fest director Intishal Al Timimi says, “We are still preparing for our sixth edition, which has been postponed until next year.” He notes that El Gouna will still offer its annual award at Venice’s Final Cut Production Bridge and highlights the CineGouna-supported project “Hanging Gardens.”

Another new source of regional support is Jordan’s Amman International Film Festival, which recently completed its second edition with a focus on debut works. Fest director Nada Doumani, who also serves as communication manager for Jordan’s Royal Film Commission, notes that the fest offers cash prizes to the winning films and to those in development and post-production through pitching platforms in the Amman Film Industry Days.

November 2022 will see the Marrakech International Film Festival and Atlas Workshops return as in-person events. This year, the cash value of its prizes will increase to €106,000 ($107,000). Fest director Rémi Bonhomme notes, “This year, five films supported by the Workshops found their way to the A-list festival circuit: the Tunisian titles ‘Ashkal’ by Youssef Chebbi [Rotterdam] and ‘Under the Fig Trees’ by Erige Sehiri [Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight], and three Moroccan films — ‘Fragments From Heaven’ by Adnane Baraka [Locarno], and ‘Queens’ and ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ [Venice].”

The new Arab films at Venice and their sections:

Horizons Extra

“Hanging Gardens”

Director: Ahmed Yassin Al Daradji

(Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UK)

When a young rubbish picker finds an American sex doll at the Baghdad dump, he’s caught in a crossfire between commercialism and fundamentalism.

Sales: True Colors

“Nezouh”

Director: Soudade Kaadan

(U.K., Syria, France)

An allegorical tale of female emancipation that looks at war-time reality with dark humor from the director of Lion of the Future winner “The Day I Lost My Shadow.”

Sales: MK2

Venice Days

“Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous”

Director: Wissam Charaf

(France-Italy-Lebanon)

Contemporary social problems are wittily defused with offbeat humor in the love story of an Ethiopian cleaner and a Syrian refugee.

Sales: Intramovies

“The Last Queen”

Directors: Adila Bendimerad, Damien Ounouri

(Algeria, France, Saudia Arabia, Qatar, Taiwan)

The legend of Queen Zaphira provides a female perspective on a historic moment in the history of Algiers.

Sales: The Party Film Sales

“The Damned Don’t Cry”

Director: Fyzal Boulifa

(France, Belgium, Morocco)

Fatima-Zahra and her adolescent son Selim move from place to place, forever trying to outrun her latest scandal.

Sales: Charades

Critics Week, Closing Night

“Queens”

Director: Yasmine Benkiran

(France, Morocco, Belgium, Netherlands, Qatar)

A road movie stretching from Casablanca to the Atlantic coast as a trio of women lead police on a long chase through the rugged red terrain and flower-filled valleys of the Atlas.

Sales: Kinology

Final Cut, Venice Production Bridge

Fiction
“Backstage”

Directors: Afef Ben Mahmoud, Khalil Benkirane

(Morocco, Belgium, France, Norway, Qatar, Tunisia)

An onstage provocation leaves one member of a contemporary dance troupe injured.

“Black Light”

Director: Karim Bensalah

(France, Algeria, Qatar)

Hoping to avoid deportation from France, an Algerian student takes a temporary job at a Muslim funeral parlor.

“Inshallah a Boy director Amjad Al Rasheed (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar)

Inheritance laws put a grieving widow without a son at risk of losing her home.

Documentary

“A Fidai Film”

Director Kamal Aljafari

(Germany, Palestine, Qatar)

During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Beirut, forces raided the Palestinian Research Center and carted away its library.

“Land of Women”

Directors Nada Riyadh, Ayman El Amir

(Egypt, France, Denmark)

A coming-of-age tale set in a conservative Egyptian village where a group of Coptic girls form an all-female street theater troupe.

“Suspended”

Director Myriam El Hajj

(Lebanon, France, Qatar)

Lebanese director El-Hajj asks, “How can we find our place in a country that is haunted by a past that continues to pollute the present?”

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