Dubai: From award-winning magical realism to a hard-hitting refugee thriller, read on for the films from Arab directors that grabbed our attention last year.
Director: Omar El-Zohairy
Starring: Samy Bassouny, Mohamed Abd El-Hady, Fady Mina Fawszy
A woman’s husband is turned into a chicken, forcing her to take care of his family. When he comes back, she kills him. The story of Omar El-Zohairy’s award-winning debut feature feels ripped from a classic fairy tale — the Grimm kind that would keep you awake long after reading. It is not the premise of El-Zohairy’s hotly-debated masterpiece that has caused a stir, but what that premise allows him to do; depicting the suffering of women in rural parts of Egypt in excruciating reality, all stunningly shot by a visionary stylist with talent to spare.
Director: Nabil Ayouch
Starring: Anas Basbousi, Ismail Adouab, Zineb Boujemaa, Meryem Nekkach
In a working-class neighborhood of Casablanca, Morocco, sits a cultural center called the Positive School of Hip Hop. Many young Moroccans struggling with poverty and the myriad oppressive realities of modern society go there each day to create music, find their voice, and forge a pathway to happiness. Ayouch’s fictional film goes inside that real-life refuge to tell the story of a teacher named Anas who gives his students the space to pursue their dreams and express themselves freely. While the film does explore the sad and violent world the students inhabit, this is ultimately a hopeful, often joyous, affirmation of the power of music.
Director: Ayten Amin
Starring: Bassant Ahmed, Basmala Elghaiesh, Hussein Ghanem, Hagar Mahmoud
For many young women in small cities in the Arab world, the only way that they can truly express themselves, communicate with the outside world, and discover their passions is through social media. Amin’s film explores the dual lives that those girls lead: The face they show their parents to meet the expectations put upon them, and the face they choose for themselves in the anonymous world of the internet. Shot with non-actors, the film feels both deeply considered and absolutely at ease, with Amin’s soft touch leaving a strong imprint.
Director: Haiden Rashid
Starring: Adam Ali, Erfan Rashid, Gassid Mohammed
On the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, a young Iraqi refugee named Kamal (Adam Ali) thinks he is approaching freedom. As he gets close, his guides turn on him, forcing him to escape into the Bulgarian forest, where he is pursued by ruthless mercenaries known as ‘Migrant Hunters.’ Shot like a classic pulse-pounding thriller, with tight camera work, break-neck editing and sound, and an above-and-beyond performance from Ali, Rashid’s film is simple but effective as a thriller, and all the more haunting because of the disturbing reality that it depicts, leading viewers to imagine how many stories like it the world ignores each day.
“The Man Who Sold His Skin”
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Starring: Yahya Mahayni, Dea Liane, Koen De Bouw, Monica Bellucci
The Tunisian director’s Oscar-nominated film enraptured audiences across the world, and it’s easy to see why. It follows Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian man forced to flee his country to Lebanon, where he meets a contemporary artist who pays him to become his next art piece, tattooing a Schengen visa on his back and then exhibiting him a museum in Brussels. Mahyani is electric throughout, and while the film’s final act undoes some of Ben Hania’s good work, the commentary on the dehumanizing nature of modern art and the global refugee crisis will haunt you.
“Gaza Mon Amour”
Director: Tarzan Nasser
Starring: Salim Daw, Hiam Abbas, Maisa Abd Elhadi
Powerhouse actors Hiam Abbas (“Succession,” “Ramy”) and Salim Daw (“Tyrant,” “The Crown”) play two lonely people who fall in love. Daw plays Issa, a 60-year-old fisherman who is secretly in love with a woman who works at the market named Siham, whom he eventually works up the courage to pursue. What makes Nasser’s love story so affecting, beyond the stirring performances, is its setting — Gaza is front and center, with all the dystopic struggles its inhabitants endure, making a love that rises up through the cracks all the more touching.
Director: Darin Sallam
Starring: Karam Taher, Ashraf Barhom, Ali Suliman
Sallam’s powerful debut feature is set in Palestine in 1948 — during the horrors of the Nakba. Fourteen-year-old Farha’s dreams of attending a school in the city and escaping her small village are dashed when bombs start to fall and the life her family had known for generations begins to fall apart before her eyes. An instantly essential film in the Palestinian canon, Sallam’s haunting, gorgeous, devastating calling card signals great things to come.
Director: Dhafer L’Abidine
Starring: Dhafer L’Abidine, Ahmed Berrhouma, Najla Ben Abdallah
The hugely popular Tunisian actor Dhafer L’Aibidine may have left his homeland decades ago, but his heart, and his mind, never strayed beyond its borders. With his directorial debut, L’Aibidine goes both in front of and behind the camera to tell the story of a man named Habib who is haunted by the unhealed wounds of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution 10 years on, demanding justice for the victims of the previous regime in a country that would prefer to move on and forget. In some ways, he’s barely holding onto his sanity. In others, he’s the only one still sane. Carried by a knockout performance by L’Abidine, the film comes alive most in the relationship between Habib and his son, whose enduring concern for his father’s mental health is deeply affecting.
“Captains of Zaatari”
Director: Ali El-Arabi
Starring: Mahmoud Dagher, Fawzi Qatleesh
In the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, two best friends dream of becoming professional footballers. El-Arabi’s documentary follows them as they are offered a life-changing opportunity: Places at a top football academy in the Gulf. The film reverberates with the heart of Mahmoud and Fawzi — with both their highs and lows, whether on the pitch or in the camp. especially as it remains unclear if they will be able to leave Zaatari for good.