Iraqi actress Kurdwin Ayub wins big at Berlin Film Festival

Iraqi actress Kurdwin Ayub wins big at Berlin Film Festival
“Sonne” had its world premiere on Feb. 12 at the festival. (AFP)
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Updated 17 February 2022

Iraqi actress Kurdwin Ayub wins big at Berlin Film Festival

Iraqi actress Kurdwin Ayub wins big at Berlin Film Festival

DUBAI: Iraqi actress Kurdwin Ayub, a former refugee, won the Best First Feature award at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival on Wednesday for her drama “Sonne.”

Ayub’s full-length feature, which she wrote and directed, centers around a Kurdish, Vienna-born teen, Yesmin, who makes a dance video with her non-Muslim friends.

The clip of the three girls goes viral overnight. Yesmin is then faced with cultural and religious challenges. 



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“Sonne” had its world premiere on Feb. 12 at the festival.

Ayub was born in Iraq in 1990. She left her country with her family during the First Gulf War. The filmmaker, who is now an Austrian citizen, grew up on the outskirts of Vienna in a refugee camp.

Her shorts have been shown and awarded at numerous international film festivals. In 2013, she was awarded the Vienna Independent Short Newcomer Prize, while in 2011 and 2012, she received the Viennale Mehrwert Short Film Prize.



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In 2012, she presented a series of her short films at the Viennale. Her feature documentary “Paradise! Paradise!,” which she directed and filmed, won multiple awards including Best Camera at the Diagonale — Festival of Austrian Film — and the New Waves Non Fiction Award at the Sevilla Festival de Cine Europeo.

This year’s Berlinale was held in-person for the first time in two years but was a shorter competition than usual, with strict regulations for audiences just as COVID-19 infections were peaking in Germany.

The festival awarded its Golden Bear top prize to Spanish director Carla Simon’s semi-autobiographical drama “Alcarras,” about a family of peach farmers fighting for their future.



A post shared by Kurdwin Ayub (@kurdwinayub)

There were 18 films from 15 countries vying for the Golden Bear, with the jury led by Indian-born American director M. Night Shyamalan.

The Berlinale is now the third major European film festival in a row to award its top prize to a woman director, following Cannes and Venice last year.

German-Turkish comedian Meltem Kaptan, 41, won the festival’s second ever gender-neutral acting prize for her performance in “Rabiye Kurnaz vs George W. Bush.”

Misk Art Week kicks off with Kingdom’s first-ever life painting classes

Misk Art Week kicks off with Kingdom’s first-ever life painting classes
Updated 08 December 2022

Misk Art Week kicks off with Kingdom’s first-ever life painting classes

Misk Art Week kicks off with Kingdom’s first-ever life painting classes
  • Huthaifa Hejazi was invited by Misk Art Institute to supervise a group of aspiring Saudi and foreign artists focused on life drawing
  • Huthaifa Hejazi: It is a big step for us to host live painting and drawing here, and I am trying to do everything I can to support the community

Huthaifa Hejazi is hosting Riyadh’s first gathering for public life drawing during Misk Art Week’s sixth edition, which launched on Wednesday.

An interior designer and an artist, Hejazi, 33, was invited by Misk Art Institute to supervise a group of aspiring Saudi and foreign artists focused on life drawing.

The classes or “gatherings,” as termed by Misk Art Institute, are the result of an informal community in Riyadh that practiced life drawing together until they found Masaha Residency in Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall, the home of Misk Art Institute in Riyadh, where they have been gathering weekly since August this year. The staging of such life drawing gatherings publicly, which have until this week been practiced privately in the Kingdom, further exemplifies changing times in Saudi Arabia.

“It is a big step for us to host live painting and drawing here, and I am trying to do everything I can to support the community,” Hejazi told Arab News.

“This is a new experience for us; life drawing helps you better your skills,” said Mansour Alotaibi, an engineer who works at the Ministry of Energy and has been painting since he was a child.

The life drawing and painting gatherings are one of the most popular events taking place during Misk Art Week, which ends on Dec. 10. They are free and open to the public, like all activities taking place during the event.

This year marked the most dynamic and comprehensive edition for Misk Art Institute’s flagship event, witnessed through a sprawling array of art exhibitions, and a range of talks and workshops reflective of the organization’s mission to strengthen the local and regional creative community. The art week, also, as Mashael Al-Yahya, creative director at Misk Art Institute, said, marks the full return of the event after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This edition, in its scale, is similar to that which was hosted in 2019,” Al-Yahya told Arab News. “But because of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021, we needed to downsize. We fully brought back our programming to this year’s art week, largely witnessed in the Art and Design Market that used to be called the Artist Street.”

A range of white cube open-air spaces in various heights made up the Art and Design Market, providing free booths to 81 creatives from across the Kingdom based on an open-call process. Works on show spanned the realms of ceramics, painting, accessories and jewelry. Like a mini art fair, guests could acquire, source and commission one-off works.

Abeer Al-Zayed, an artist from Al-Baha, came to Riyadh to show her paintings featuring delicate and colorful portraits of anonymous women at the Art and Design Market, marking her fifth time taking part in a Misk event. “We are witnessing the growth of the art scene in Saudi Arabia, and this makes me very happy,” she told Arab News.

Other highlights included the two-day Creative Forum, which brought in top speakers on art and culture from around the Middle East and internationally. Artists include Emirati Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, founder of Barjeel Art Foundation; Dr. Nada Shabout, regent professor of art history and coordinator of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative at the University of North Texas, and artists such as pioneering Saudi woman Safeya Binzagr.

On the second floor of the Prince Faisal bin Fahad Arts Hall was the third edition of the Misk Art Grant, one of the most sought-after grants in the region with a fund of SR1 million ($266,632) distributed among three to 10 artists and collectives from across the Arab world. In a tightly curated show, the artists showcased their work, made this year according to the theme of Saraab, which means mirage in Arabic. Noteworthy was how the works examined the relationship between movement, memory and ideas pertaining to what is visible and invisible.

This year’s recipients included Saudi artists Abdulmohsen Albinali and Juri Alfadhel; M’hammed Kilito from Ukraine, Athoub Al-Busaily from Kuwait, and Rawdha Al-Ketbi and Zeinab Alhashemi from the UAE.

Alhashemi presented “The Grid,” a powerful series of six steel beam sculptures recreating the cylinder pipes found in Prince Faisal bin Fahd Fine Arts Hall. The gold and black cylinders, some standing tall and erect while others curving over, featured black claps on the interlocking beams, making the piece almost akin to jewelry pieces. They are, emphasized the artist, an attempt to play on the visibility and invisibility of the pipes, almost as if to say that the objects surrounding us are more prominent and crucial than we might think.

“Cylinders don’t seem to be invisible, but when people are looking at the art, they don’t seem to notice them or they act like they don’t see them in a way,” Alhashemi told Arab News.

“I wanted to dive deeper into the meanings behind the grids and also how different artists have used them in the past like Agnes Martin,” she added.

“To her, the grid was very meditative, and it was a way of applying some sort of harmony to her horizontal and vertical lines,” she said.

As visitors come and go from the venue, they pass the exhibition Azeema, which means “invitation” or “getting together” in Arabic. Inside are works by a range of Gulf or Khaleeji creatives reflecting on hospitality’s historical and cultural importance in the region. Videos, installations, photography and paintings showcase the persistence of collective gatherings, sharing and shared memories. On show are pivotal works such as Saudi artist Filwa Nazer’s “The Family Series,” dating to 2015, featuring cutouts superimposed over the artist’s family portraits.

There are images of weddings by acclaimed Saudi photographer Tasmeen Alsultan, paintings by Emirati artist Khalid Al-Banna — his vibrant mix of paint on his colorful abstract canvases is akin to a dynamic social gathering — and Elham Aldawsari’s photographs titled “Subabat” (2020) capture her research into the history of Saudi women hospitality workers.

Aldawsari’s large photographs greet visitors at the entrance just as a subabat — women who serve drinks and food at all-women events — would do. The artist, who grew up during the 1990s during a time when the internet was not readily available in the Kingdom, showcases the memories and stories of these women who have watched, through their personal and professional lives, while always serving others, the myriad changes that have shaped their country over the last few decades.

Balad Beast ready to take center stage at Jeddah’s Old Town

Balad Beast ready to take center stage at Jeddah’s Old Town
Updated 08 December 2022

Balad Beast ready to take center stage at Jeddah’s Old Town

Balad Beast ready to take center stage at Jeddah’s Old Town
  • Balad Beast is a boutique music festival organized for a reduced capacity of between 12,000-15,000 people daily, Dec. 9 and 10, in Al-Balad, Jeddah
  • MDLBEAST is expanding into multiple events and diversifying its portfolio under MDLBEAST Records to feature more artists representing different genres

JEDDAH: Ahead of the arrival of musical event Balad Beast, Ramadan Alharatani, CEO of MDLBEAST, received local and regional media for an exclusive press preview, including a tour of Jeddah Old Town’s famous districts on Wednesday.

The pre-event promotion was organized in collaboration with the Saudi Ministry of Culture.

MDLBEAST is taking place over two days on Dec. 9 and 10 with more than 70 local, regional and international artists performing in the neighborhood alongside the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s epic surroundings.

Alharatani explained the inspiration behind Balad Beast and detailed how the site will be preserved during the event. Speaking to Arab News, he said: “After months of behind-the-scenes preparations, we are delighted that the time has finally come for Jeddah’s Old Town to take center stage and host the first-ever Balad Beast.

“Since a historical area like Al-Balad requires extra caution, various extensive sound testing across the past two weeks has been performed to measure the effect of the sound vibrations and waves on the area’s buildings and ensure the volume is at a safe limit.”

Alharatani added that the Balad Beast is a boutique festival organized for a reduced capacity with about 12,000-15,000 people in attendance each day.

“We aim to provide the full experience to the music lovers in Jeddah similar to what other festivals of multi-stages and multi-genres have along with an ability to move from one place to another, enabling visitors to enjoy the music at every corner,” he said.

“The crowd in Jeddah has always been demanding for MDLBEAST. Although we have been here before by executing the Formula One concerts in March and November, this is the first time we are bringing the MDLBEAST through Balad Beast in historic Jeddah,” he added.

The event will bring renowned headliners, emerging talent and cutting-edge features together in a historic, culturally significant site fusing the past with the present and thrusting the spotlight on both Jeddah’s history and vast potential to become a thriving local and regional hub for music.

During the conference, Alharatani said that extra steps had been taken to prevent harassment of any kind at the event. “We work to promote fun and consensual music experiences. Therefore, we have launched an anti-harassment campaign called ‘Respect & Reset’ aimed at education, prevention and support resources,” he said.

Alharatani warned that anyone who violates the policy will be immediately removed from the festival site without a refund and will be referred to the authorities for legal recourse, adding that offenders will be banned from all future events.

MDLBEAST is expanding into multiple events and diversifying its portfolio under MDLBEAST Records to feature more artists representing different genres. It is also expanding into venues to provide creative spaces and cultural hubs for aspiring artists to gather, create and be part of the community.

Balad Beast announced that US rapper Busta Rhymes is making his way to Saudi Arabia for the festival, while era-defining DJ Carl Cox will also be part of the action-packed bill. Italian duo Tale of Us will also take part, along with Lupe Fiasco, Salvatore Ganacci, as well as local artists including Dorar, Dana Hourani, Biirdperson and many others.

Tickets for Balad Beast are available now across two tiers: General Admission, which offers access to all five stages of the event, and VIB, which will give ticket holders the privilege of accessing historic building lounges, entrances from a separate VIB gate and complimentary gourmet food.

Palestinian American comedian Mo Amer’s talk thrills audience at Red Sea International Film Festival

Palestinian American comedian Mo Amer’s talk thrills audience at Red Sea International Film Festival
Updated 08 December 2022

Palestinian American comedian Mo Amer’s talk thrills audience at Red Sea International Film Festival

Palestinian American comedian Mo Amer’s talk thrills audience at Red Sea International Film Festival

JEDDAH: Palestinian American comedian and actor Mo Amer, who has had an impressive year following the success of his semi-autobiographical Netflix comedy-drama “Mo” and a role in “Black Adam,” was at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah on Wednesday to speak as part of the “In Conversation” panel.

The 41-year-old is the writer, producer and lead star of “Mo,” in which he tells the story of a Palestinian refugee who lives with his family in Houston, trying to figure out how to make a living while waiting on a pending asylum request for US citizenship which has already taken longer than 20 years.



Amer said: “What really gets me going in the mornings is like, creating something that’s never been done before, putting a story out there, and what it does to this landscape.

“A Palestinian experience in America, or anywhere really, that is put out on the biggest global platform on planet Earth is so spectacular.

Mo Amer at the In Conversation panel at the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah. (AFP)

“To tell a Palestinian story that’s real, that’s grounded, that’s from Houston and shows the city as a character, is so special.

“I’ve never seen anything like that so that’s what keeps me going, telling stories that are so unique, but yet very global. That’s not just for us, but for everybody.”

Speaking on why he made the show, Amer added: “It is important to lead with something that I know super well.

“We have never seen what a refugee is like. We always see them on boats, you know; they are just struggling to get to a place.

“It’s super-dramatic and dramatizes to another level. There’s not really a face to it.

“I always call myself a privileged refugee, and I am, and I definitely state there’s no story of the asylum process, what it’s like, day to day, for the family to go through all the different emotions.”


A post shared by Mohammed "Mo" Amer (@moamer)

Amer straddles the line between two different cultures, two religions, and three languages, including Arabic, English and Mexican, in the show.

What makes the series so heartwarming to its audiences is the real, silly, and funny tone that Amer uses to mix old and new school, which helped make the series one of the most significant TV shows of 2022.

He added: “It’s really been incredible. The response has been through the roof, and I think that having 20 years of thinking about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it is what made it so timely.

“We were as honest as we could be. In episode three, when we see my grandparents’ house, that is actually my grandparents’ house.

“The house address in episode seven in the flashback, which I wrote over nine years ago, is the address that we fled from in Kuwait.”


A post shared by Mohammed "Mo" Amer (@moamer)

Amer also shared what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian, and how he goes by the reaction of his audience while onstage.

He said: “The audience is my barometer; that’s the most beautiful thing. And that relationship is really special to me.

“It’s just such a thrilling thing to build an audience and to go around the world, and for them to come to see you tell specific stories and share them and get that immediate response.

“There is nothing like it and, to be honest, stand-up comedy saved my life.”

And Amer’s special advice for any budding writers?

He said: “Write for yourself, do not wait. Everything that you write, put it in your savings account. That is what I call it because actually, you can put it in your savings, and you do not know when you’re going to use it.

“Later on, somebody is going to ask you if you have anything and you can show them all the projects that you have. That is very, very important.”

REVIEW: Red Sea title ‘Harka’ takes a disturbing look at Tunisia’s tragedies

REVIEW: Red Sea title ‘Harka’ takes a disturbing look at Tunisia’s tragedies
Updated 08 December 2022

REVIEW: Red Sea title ‘Harka’ takes a disturbing look at Tunisia’s tragedies

REVIEW: Red Sea title ‘Harka’ takes a disturbing look at Tunisia’s tragedies

JEDDAH: “Harka,” which premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard category and has now been featured at the ongoing second edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, takes a poignant and gut-wrenching look at Tunisia, a decade after the Arab Spring.

The film deftly handles heavy themes like abject poverty brought on by unemployment, corruption and, more importantly, the absence of hope.

Little has changed for Tunisia since the Arab Spring. Vivien Yee wrote in The New York Times: “A new constitution and several free and fair elections have failed to deliver the bread, jobs and dignity that Tunisians demanded after ousting a longtime dictator.” Good times still elude the nation, as we see in Lotfy Nathan’s unforgettable “Harka” — which can mean either “to burn” or “migrate illegally across the Mediterranean by small boats,” a journey where danger and death await.

Compelling French Tunisian actor Adam Bessa plays Ali, who dreams of better times, and after his father’s death, has to take on the responsibility of caring for his two younger sisters. His older brother, despite a steady job at a seaside resort, refuses to help Ali, who is further burdened by a debt his father left behind. With their house being taken over by the bank, Ali and his sisters are pushed to the streets.

With little hope left despite his risky job of selling contraband gasoline on the border, Ali as a character comes alive after the Arab Spring, which started with the immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010 and spread from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria and other countries.

What do you do when life keeps hitting you? That is the question Nathan poses in a very disturbing sort of way.

With several non-professionals in the movie, the director skillfully weaves his plot through a maze of tragedies, and presents a climax that is at once hopeful and horrifying. What appears so ruthless here is the complete callousness of the people who walk by even as a tragedy unfolds in front of them.

Maximilian Pittner’s camera takes you close to Ali and others, helping us to watch their anguish in great detail. Nathan’s background has been documentaries, and here in his fictional “Harka,” he masters the art of mixing the two genres into a gripping narrative.

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 
Updated 08 December 2022

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 

Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story 
  • The filmmaker on her acclaimed movie about two Syrian sisters, one of whom became an Olympian after fleeing their homeland 

DUBAI: Conjure an image of war — an image of what a young woman stuck in those circumstances must be going through to take the desperate decision to flee into the dark of night, to become a refugee. Is your image full of ash and smoke, of abject terror and starvation? That is exactly the image that Sally El-Hosaini’s film “The Swimmers” — based on the remarkable true story of Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara — attempts to dispel from the start.  

The film, which is now streaming globally on Netflix, begins in a very different civil-war-era Syria than the one commonly depicted in the news: Two young women are dancing to Sia’s “Titanium” with their friends, clubbing and finding joy where they can. Bombs are falling in the distance, but they have found a way to push that out of their minds for a moment, to continue their normal, middle-class lives because they refuse to give into the fear.  

“When Yusra was watching this scene, she turned around to me in the cinema, and said, ‘Thank you for this. This is what it really felt like,’” El-Hosaini tells Arab News. 

“Yusra told me the story of the day a mortar landed in front of her as she was going to meet her friends, and there was chaos, so she hid behind a wall. And as she hid, she thought, ‘Should I run home, or should I still go meet my friends?’” 

Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa, Yusra Mardini and Sarah Mardini at the premiere of ‘The Swimmers’ in Toronto. (AFP)

As Yusra Mardini hid behind that wall, she told El-Hosaini, she did the math in her head. Surely, if she was going to die tonight, it would have been here. 

“Statistically, I’ve already had the mortar land in front of me. Another one’s not going to hit me tonight. I’m going to meet my friends,” Mardini thought.  

“That’s the way it becomes normalized. It’s horrific, but that’s what really happens. They were just trying to be teenagers,” El-Hosaini continues.

Filmmaker Sally El-Hosaini (with megaphone) during the making of ‘The Swimmers.’ (Supplied)

In many ways, El-Hosaini’s film can’t help but be remarkable. The fact that the sisters cheated death time and again for one to reach the pinnacle of their sport on the other side of the world is undeniably inspiring. What makes it especially notable, however, is not just the true story at its center, but the way that the British-Egyptian filmmaker El-Hosaini frames it as a film of “female emancipation” — a story not of passive victims, but of active heroes who used a desperate situation to rise up in ways that, ironically, they never could have had their circumstances not been changed so dramatically.  

“War turns everything on its head,” says El-Hosaini. “All of the structures of society — cultural, patriarchal structures — no longer exist. They're shaken. That allows the young the freedom to really go on a journey like this. It’s an ironic liberation that came out of tragedy and war. On that journey that they took, they really were making crucial decisions about their lives. They became heroes by doing that. That’s something I really responded to.” 

 Nathalie Issa, Manal Issa and Ahmed Malek. (Supplied)

This is not just a story that El-Hosaini dreamed of making, it’s a story she had grown up wishing already existed. 

“You don't often see young, modern Arab women on screen. I saw this opportunity to make complex heroes out of these types of women. Normally, you have, like, victimized portrayal. When I was growing up, I never had a role model like that — a version of me on screen. I had the thought that if I didn't do this project, and I saw the film, I might feel disappointed, because I knew what it could be in my hands. And if it didn't achieve that, I would be very sad. And that was when I realized I had to do it myself,” says El-Hosaini. 

At the center of the all-star Arab cast, which includes Syrian superstar Kinda Alloush as the Mardini sisters’ mother, acclaimed Palestinian actor Ali Soleiman as their father, and rising Egyptian star Ahmed Malek as their closest friend, are two relative unknowns — Lebanese sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa as Yusra and Sara Mardini.  

The Issa sisters were only cast after an exhaustive search, one that initially only included Syrians before the visas required by the film’s locations made Syrian casting impossible.  

“Manal had been in some independent Lebanese films and she had this very charismatic, rebellious presence. When she auditioned, she mentioned she was a big sister just like Sara, but her younger sister, Nathalie, was not an actress — she was studying for a master’s in literature. We asked if she could audition, and after Nathalie read the book, she was inspired, and came to screen test for us. Their chemistry blew me away, as they each embodied the very different energies of Sara and Yusra. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! I’ve found the Lebanese version of the Syrian Mardini sisters,’” says El-Hosaini.  

When the two pairs of sisters met, the connection was instant. 

“Within a few hours, they were sharing their life stories. When they spent the night at their house that first meeting, they talked all night, and they were like the best of friends. And they’re still friends now. It just felt so natural,” the filmmaker continues. 

But the film did more than provide the two pairs of sisters with new friends. It also brought the Mardini sisters back together, as they had drifted apart somewhat since the events of the film. 

“When we first screened the film for them in Berlin, we all sat in the back room, terrified, because they hadn’t seen anything. And then, as the movie started, they started laughing, and then crying, and talking through it — whispering to each other. When the movie ended, Sara climbed over the cinema seats, and she gave me a big hug. She said, ‘Thank you. You reminded me how much I love my sister’” says El-Hosaini. 

“Most people don’t ever see their life contained in two hours in that way. It was a very intense experience,” she continues. “But I’m so thrilled that they’re proud of it, and that they felt represented. It was really one of the great honors of my life to tell their story.”