Five Arab films that have won international acclaim

Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s ‘Wadjda". (Supplied)
Updated 09 December 2019

Five Arab films that have won international acclaim

  • Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s 'The Perfect Candidate' is in the shortlist for an Oscar
  • A number of Arab productions are in the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

CAIRO: The Oscars are just around the corner, and in January the shortlist for the coveted Best Foreign Language Film award will be confirmed.

Several titles from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been submitted for consideration, including Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate.”

The entry, which tells the story of a Saudi doctor who takes on her country’s patriarchal system by running in municipal elections, is particularly significant as it is the Kingdom’s first Academy Award submission following the ban on theaters being lifted in 2017.

It is also the first to be supported by the Saudi Film Council, an organization launched at Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

Here is a look at other recent Arab titles that have achieved international acclaim, and why they are worth watching.

1. WADJDA — Saudi Arabia

“The Perfect Candidate” is not the first of Al-Mansour’s films to be submitted to the Oscars. Her critically acclaimed drama “Wadjda” became the first title to be submitted by the Kingdom in 2013 for the 86th Academy Awards. It marked the debut of a Saudi female filmmaker, with the film shot entirely in the Kingdom.

The story of a 10-year-old Wadjda, and her desire to buy a bicycle to race against a male friend, sheds light on traditions and women’s rights.

In an article for The Guardian newspaper, film critic Henry Barnes described “Wadjda” as a message that Al-Mansour wrapped “inside a love letter to her people.”

2. ESHTEBAK — Egypt

The Egyptian film industry has a good track record when it comes to titles receiving global acclaim, one of the most recent being “Eshtebak” (“Clash”), by director Mohamed Diab.

Set in a police van during a period of street protests and unrest in 2013, the film chronicles a time of political and social instability in the country, where a clash of ideologies and personalities unfolds between communities.




 Egyptian director Mohamed Diab's “Eshtebak” (“Clash”). (Supplied)

The resulting tensions and dilemmas are acted out by the people trapped in the van.

“Eshtebak” was selected as the opening film for the Un Certain Regard section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and screened internationally across Europe, and in Brazil and China.

The film was publicly endorsed by actor Tom Hanks in a letter to the director: “Your film will go to great lengths to enlighten many. Audiences will see that humanity is a fragile community, but we are all in ‘this’ together.”

3. AL-JANNA AL-AAN — Palestine

A Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film — and nominated in the same category at the 78th Academy Awards — “Paradise Now” was described by its Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad, as “an artistic point of view of the political issue.”

The film digs deep into the human aspects of the Palestinian conflict, following the fictional story of two friends recruited by a terrorist group to become suicide bombers in Tel Aviv.




Palestinan director Hany Abu-Assad's “Al-Janna Al-Aan" (Supplied)

Armed with explosives, they attempt to cross into Israel, but are pursued by border guards and separated.

When they are reunited, one character decides against carrying out the bombing, and tries to convince his friend to quit as well.

“Paradise Now” was not Abu-Assad’s only Academy Award nomination. His film “Omar,” which won the Muhr awards for Best Film and Best Director at the 2013 Dubai International Film Festival, was also shortlisted for the same category at the 2014 Oscars.

4. CAFARNAUM — Lebanon

Directed by celebrated Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, “Capernaum” depicts the complicated life of undocumented migrants, refugees and workers in Lebanon through the story of 12-year old Zain, who lives in the slums of Beirut.

The film generated $68 million at the box office worldwide, more than 17 times its production budget, becoming the highest-grossing Middle Eastern and Arabic movie of all time.




Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's “Cafarnaum" (Supplied)

“Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival — it received a solid 15-minute standing ovation after its screening there — and was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.

Labaki’s other productions include “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?”

5. THEEB — Jordan

This drama by Naji Abu Nowar starred non-professional Bedouin actors and focuses on events unfolding in the Wadi Rum desert in southern Jordan during World War I.




Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar's “Theeb" (Supplied)

In 2016, “Theeb” won internationally recognition by becoming the first Jordanian nomination to make it to the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

It was also nominated for Best Film Not in the English Language at the 69th British Academy Film Awards, and won the Best Director award at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


REVIEW: Hijack movie ‘7500’ opts for low-key suspense

Updated 44 min 45 sec ago

REVIEW: Hijack movie ‘7500’ opts for low-key suspense

  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in tense, claustrophobic drama

AMMAN: After a string of huge movie roles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has taken a step back from Hollywood to focus on his family in recent years. Now, the 39-year-old is back on screen playing Tobias Ellis, the first officer on a commercial flight from Berlin to Paris. When hijackers attempt to take over the plane, Tobias winds up trapped in the cockpit while chaos unfolds just a few feet away. The film — named for the emergency code given to hijacked aircraft — is the feature debut of Patrick Vollrath, a German director with an Academy Award nomination (for the short “Everything Will Be Okay”) already to his name.

Vollrath limits the action to the cockpit of the plane, creating an almost unbearably claustrophobic atmosphere that’s only heightened by the contrasting mundanity of the opening scenes. As Tobias and his captain (played by German actor Carlo Kitzlinger) go through their checklists and procedures, the knowledge that something terrible is about to happen only ratchets up the tension, and when the situation does erupt, the brutality of the attack is shocking in the extreme.

Quite deliberately, “7500” lacks the spectacle of classic disaster movies, and though it’s fiction, the obvious similarities to events such as those aboard United Airlines Flight 93 lend the movie a sense of disconcerting resonance. Gordon-Levitt turns in a masterful performance, never once seeking to dominate the film, but capturing a sense of impotent fury and fear as his place of work — previously his comfort zone — is turned into a literal prison.

Vollrath never opts for histrionics, but lets the sparse script and his semi-improvisational style empower his lead actor to bring a raw and uncompromising edge to the performance. Vollrath sidesteps many of the usual clichés used in modern terrorist movies, making less of the reasons for the attack and instead exploring the toll exerted on both sides. There’s no music score, so the movie uses the noise of the aircraft, the attack, and the muffled sounds of the world beyond the cockpit to underline just how trapped Tobias becomes.

“7500” is not an easy film to watch, and it would be hard to describe it as ‘enjoyable,’ but it is an impressive demonstration of a director and an actor at the top of their respective games.