DUBAI: At the latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious event in world cinema, Saudi Arabia plays a greater role than ever before, with five films backed by the Kingdom’s Red Sea Film Fund making the official selection. It’s an already-historic collection of titles, featuring the festival’s first-ever film from Sudan as well as a number of groundbreaking efforts from both first-time filmmakers and some of the most acclaimed directors in the Arab world.
Starring: Hend Sabri, Nour Karoui, Ichraq Matar
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Some directors find it hard to follow an Academy Award nomination. Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, who is coming off the huge global success of her 2020 film “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” the first Tunisian film to secure a nod for Best International Feature Film, is seemingly undeterred, with “Four Daughters” looking like her most ambitious film to date.
A hybrid of fiction and documentary, the film follows Olfa, a Tunisian mother of four daughters, two of whom mysteriously disappear. Chronicling 10 years of Olfa’s life from 2010 to 2020, events get increasingly harrowing as it’s revealed that the two missing teenagers have been radicalized and have joined Daesh in Libya. Some of the Arab world’s biggest stars, including Hend Sabri, Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar dramatize the events that Ben Hania couldn’t capture in real life. Bringing to mind groundbreaking Middle Eastern classics such as Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up,” Four Daughters is shaping up to be Ben Hania’s masterpiece.
‘Banel & Adama’
Starring: Khady Mane, Mamadou Diallo, Binta Racine Sy, Moussa Sow
Director: Ramata-Toulaye Sy
Senegalese filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy has done what few others have done before, landing a spot for her feature directorial debut in competition for the prestigious Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. While she’ll be up against tenured luminaries such as Wim Wenders, Ken Loach, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Wes Anderson, the 36-year-old is inspired by the chance to show the film to the biggest names in the business.
“I'm scared and I'm very excited. Two thousand people in the room, with the press, with the jury. That's going to be something — it makes you dream,” Sy recently told CNN.
Set in a remote village in northern Senegal, the region in which her parents were born, “Banel & Adama” follows a young couple whose romance is put in jeopardy when the village council voices their disapproval for the pairing, sending the entire village into chaos.
“It's a tragedy,” Sy explained to CNN. “At first, ‘Banel & Adama’ feels like a classic love story, (but) little by little, we realize that this love story focuses more on Banel than Adama, and it turns into the story of a woman trying to fulfill herself.”
Director: Mohamed Kordofani
Starring: Eiman Yousif, Siran Riak, Nazar Goma, Ger Duany
Sudanese cinema continues its resurgence with “Goodbye Julia,” the debut feature from Mohamed Kordofani and the first from the country to be selected for Cannes. Screening in the midst of another painful divide now happening in the capital city of Khartoum, the film jumps back to the time before Sudan was split into two countries in 2011, dramatizing another traumatic event in the country’s history.
“Being part of the first-ever official selection of a Sudanese film in Cannes is heartwarming and very promising for this new wave of cinema,” Kordofani recently told Screen Daily.
The film follows two women from the north and south of the country respectively, one a retired singer racked with guilt for causing a man’s death, another the widow of that man. The singer offers the widow — who doesn’t know about the singer’s involvement in her late husband’s death — a job as her maid in an effort to atone for her misdeeds.
“I consider ‘Goodbye Julia’ a call for reconciliation and a spotlight on the social dynamics that led to the separation of the South,” Kordofani said.
Starring: Ayoub Elaid, Abdelatif El-Mansouri
Director: Kamal Lazraq
Moroccan filmmaker Kamal Lazraq returns to Cannes 12 years after his short film “Drari” won second prize in the Cinéfondation category with “Les Moutes” (which translates to ‘Hounds’ in English) — a harrowing crime story set over a single night with an irresistible hook. The film follows father and son Hassan and Issam, petty criminals working for the local organized-crime syndicate in the suburbs of Casablanca. While they’re carrying out a supposedly routine kidnapping, things go awry, and the two face a dilemma: either dispose of the body, or go to prison for the rest of their lives.
The film is the feature debut for Lazraq, who hasn’t directed since his 2014 short “The Man with a Dog,” which followed a man whose yellow Labrador was stolen while he was swimming who will stop at nothing to retrieve his pet. According to a recent conversation that Lazraq had with Bref Cinéma magazine, “Les Meutes” is a “spiritual sequel” to that short, a deeper exploration of both desperation and the strange things that one may encounter wandering the streets of his country at night.
‘The Mother of All Lies’
Starring: Asmae El-Moudir
Director: Asmae El-Moudir
Another innovative documentary, “The Mother of All Lies” is the latest release from Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir. Her previous effort, 2020’s feature-length doc “The Postcard,” found her diving into her family’s past as she journeyed to the small village in which her mother was raised. There, she attempted to personally connect to the circumstances she would have found herself growing up in had her family never left the remote locale.
“The Mother of All Lies” finds the director exploring her own childhood more directly. While her previous film took inspiration from a postcard photograph of her mother’s village that she had found, this film begins with El-Moudir rediscovering a photograph she had always been told was of herself as a child, but, she finds out, is not of her at all. This propels her into an investigation of all the untruths she’d been told by her family, leading to some startling revelations.
Challenging conventions has been El Moudir’s intention since she began as a filmmaker more than 10 years ago. In 2012, she told the “African Women in Cinema” blog in 2012: “I work from a particular perspective, with a desire to break conventions. Indeed, to be in front of the camera is the dream of many women, but to tell stories about these characters is another pleasure, and why not do it from behind the camera? What is important for me is that I have a feeling for what I do.”