Year in review: Looking back on a great year for Arab cinema

Year in review: Looking back on a great year for Arab cinema
If there’s one Saudi film from 2023 that’s easiest to recommend to people of all ages, it’s “Hajjan,” the latest from acclaimed Egyptian filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 December 2023
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Year in review: Looking back on a great year for Arab cinema

Year in review: Looking back on a great year for Arab cinema

DUBAI: From groundbreaking Saudi films to hard-hitting work from North Africa, we look back on a great year for Arab cinema   

‘Mandoob’ 

Director: Ali Kalthami 

Starring: Mohammed Dokhei, Hajar Alshammari, Sarah Taibah 

While the wrestling comedy “Sattar” — another film from the groundbreaking Saudi production company Telfaz11 — was the movie that proved that Saudi audiences will embrace local productions on a blockbuster scale, “Mandoob,” the debut feature of Telfaz11 co-founder Ali Kalthami, may be the more impressive achievement. A stylish and substantive noir about a desperate man unwittingly pulled into Riyadh’s underworld, it has become an instant hit in the Kingdom, and already seems destined to become a pillar on which elevated Saudi cinema will be built — it’s a movie that young men will hang posters of in their bedrooms for years to come. Its distinctive visual language punctuates a committed, star-making performance from Dokhei, who crafted a character that won’t be forgotten. 

‘Hajjan’ 

Director: Abu Bakr Shawky 

Starring: Omar Al-Atawi, Toleen Barbood, Ibrahim Al-Hasawi 

If there’s one Saudi film from 2023 that’s easiest to recommend to people of all ages, it’s “Hajjan,” the latest from acclaimed Egyptian filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky. He and fellow Egyptian Omar Shama and Saudi writer Mufarrij Almajfel created a gorgeous fable of a young boy and his beloved camel Hofira, which also doubles as the year’s best sports film. In it, the boy is forced to join the racing team of the man who may be responsible for his brother’s death, a potent conflict that heightens the drama of each thrillingly-documented race. With stunning cinematography that captures the beauty of NEOM and naturalistic acting from its cast, both fresh and experienced, this is a film that will make audiences stand up and cheer when it finally hits wide release early next year.  

‘Goodbye Julia’  

Director: Mohamed Kordofani 

Starring: Eiman Yousif, Siran Riak, Nazar Goma 

“Goodbye Julia” may be a conscious denunciation of the racism that tore Sudan apart, but this debut feature from Sudanese filmmaker Mohamed Kordofani is most affecting not just for its clear-eyed moral stance, but for the immense empathy it shows its characters, even those with deep-rooted hate in their hearts. The Karthoum-set story follows a woman from the country’s north named Mona, who hires a young mother named Julia to be her live-in maid. Why does she do so? Because she unintentionally caused the death of Julia’s husband, who was shot by Mona’s own husband Akram in what he thought was self-defense. As their lives become entangled over the next five years, the lies only multiply, threatening to destroy each of their lives forever. Engaging from start to finish, this is a masterpiece that should not be missed, whether you’re familiar with Sudan’s intricacies or not.   

‘Inshallah A Boy’ 

Director: Amjad Al Rasheed 

Starring: Mouna Hawa, Hitham Omari, Yumna Marwan 

Another strong Academy Award contender from the region, Amjad Al-Rasheed’s piercing critique of Jordanian society is an ode to the many strong women in his life whom he has seen fall prey to men who abuse antiquated legal systems to their own gain. The first Jordanian film to screen at Cannes, “Inshallah A Boy” has since resonated with audiences across the world, who have connected not only with its themes, but with its superlative performances and staging. Much like “Goodbye Julia,” a fellow submission to next year’s International Feature Film Oscar category, this is another masterful debut from a filmmaker whose exploration of his own culture proves that the love we may have for our society should never stop us from being honest about its flaws.  

‘The Teacher’ 

Director: Farah Nabulsi 

Starring: Saleh Bakri, Imogen Poots, Muhammad Abed Elrahman 

No other film on this list connects more deeply with the global conversation of the moment than British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s “The Teacher.” Set in Palestine’s West Bank, it follows a complicated anti-hero played by the masterful, soulful Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri. He portrays a teacher who struggles to keep his community intact during a wave of violence, as well as keep his secrets hidden from the young international aid worker (Imogen Poots) with whom he has a budding romance. While Nabulsi’s “The Present” was one of the few international short films to become a global hot topic after its 2021 Oscar nomination, “The Teacher” is a more-accomplished piece of work, offering no easy answers to an unbearable ongoing tragedy that continues to weigh down the world.   

‘Norah’ 

Director: Tawfik Alzaidi 

Starring: Yaqoub Alfarhan, Maria Bahrawi, Abdullah Alsadhan 

While Kalthami’s “Mandoob” was the year’s best look at Saudi Arabia’s present, “Norah” is a much-needed dive into the Kingdom’s past — an AlUla-set ode to the generations of Saudi artists who lived in a time when the opportunities to display their talents didn’t yet exist. While there is tragedy in its conceit, following an artist named Nader who takes a job as a teacher because he cannot survive on his art, it is also profoundly hopeful. The clue is in the name: ‘Norah.’ She’s a young girl in Nader’s class (played by newcomer Maria Bahrawi), who doesn’t yet know the bright future that may be ahead of her if she just manages to broaden her imagination. In a way, Alzaidi embodies both these characters, as he too had years of struggle to become a filmmaker, but now, in a new Saudi Arabia, his path, and the young generation of burgeoning storytellers he will surely inspire, is paved with gold.  

‘Four Daughters’ 

Director: Kaouther Ben Hania 

Starring: Hend Sabry, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui 

The Tunisian filmmaker’s global profile skyrocketed with her dynamite 2020 satire “The Man who Sold his Skin,” but she has long been one of the region’s most brilliant, singular cinematic artists. Her latest, the impossible-to-categorize hybrid documentary-drama, may be her most cerebral to date. It tells the story of a mother of four who loses two daughters to extremism after they run off to join Daesh, and Ben Hania cast both the actual family and a team of actors — all of whom interact and emotionally dissect the situation. If there was a stone left to be turned, I certainly couldn’t spot it.  

‘The Mother of All Lies’ 

Director: Asmae El-Moudir 

Starring: Asmae El-Moudir  

Another festival hit, the Saudi-backed “The Mother of All Lies” is a deeply personal journey for its Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El-Moudir, who has made a career out of introspection. Her last film saw her venture back to the remote village in which her mother was raised, a journey into her heritage as much as the country she thought she knew. Her follow up is even more personal, inspired by a photograph she’s kept since she was a child that she thought was of her, but is not actually her at all. As she unravels the truth, the film becomes an effective mystery as well as a stirring exploration of Moroccan society. 


Saudi art on show as 17th edition of UAE fair launched

Saudi art on show as 17th edition of UAE fair launched
Updated 29 February 2024
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Saudi art on show as 17th edition of UAE fair launched

Saudi art on show as 17th edition of UAE fair launched
  • Jeddah-based Hafez Gallery will be showcasing rare black-and-white works on cardboard by Saudi artist Abdulsattar Al-Mussa
  • Jeddah’s Athr Gallery will be putting on a solo exhibition of works by Saudi artist Ayman Yossri Daydban

DUBAI: The 17th edition of Art Dubai will showcase works from more than 120 galleries around the world.

And Saudi artists will be among the participants in the international art fair running from March 1 to 3.

Jeddah-based Hafez Gallery will be showcasing rare black-and-white works on cardboard by Saudi artist Abdulsattar Al-Mussa.

Born in Al-Ahsa in 1955, and educated in the Soviet Union during the 1970s, his works were created in the 1980s and use thickly contoured lines to depict everyday scenes in his native Saudi Arabia.

The gallery’s curatorial director, Alexandra Stock, told Arab News: “People have been asking a lot of questions about Abdulsattar’s work. They’re very intrigued by the technique.

“I think it’s important to show Abdulsattar at Art Dubai because he has had a lot of success abroad, but it’s very nice that he is having another upwind, a push in the region, that he’s being acknowledged back home,” she said.

The fair’s sections cover contemporary, bawwaba, modern, and digital art.

In the contemporary part, a Hafez Gallery booth will be displaying the work of Saudi creative Bashaer Hawsawi, whose visual artwork has been constructed from dried palm leaves formed into patterns and figures.

She told Arab News: “I used to come to Art Dubai just to visit. Being here means a lot to me.”

Her exhibit, “Holy Thirst,” was inspired by her maternal family’s fashioning of palm fronds into everyday domestic tools.

Jeddah’s Athr Gallery will be putting on a solo exhibition of works by Saudi artist Ayman Yossri Daydban, who for decades has worked in a variety of mediums.

Some of the European galleries represented at the fair will also be highlighting artists from the Kingdom.

From Austria, Galerie Krinzinger will be displaying a piece by Maha Malluh, known for creating large installations made from items popular in bygone eras. Her long rectangular panel festooned with cassette tapes is part of her “Food For Thought” series in which she mounts countless objects on walls, many collected from markets in Saudi Arabia.

Madrid-based gallerist Sabrina Amrani has dedicated half of her booth to a selection of photographic, sculptural, and textile works by Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan, who will represent the Kingdom at the Venice Biennale in April.

Amrani told Arab News: “The feedback has been amazing. Manal is a very dear artist of Dubai. She had her studio here for many years, contributing to the arts scene greatly here. These works feel at home.”


Saudi fashion designer inspires futuristic cultural attire

Saudi fashion designer inspires futuristic cultural attire
Updated 29 February 2024
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Saudi fashion designer inspires futuristic cultural attire

Saudi fashion designer inspires futuristic cultural attire
  • Mohammed Al-Jishi is a self-taught fashion designer who uses his experience as an architect to create his own unique and eye-catching outfits
  • Al-Jishi: My background in architecture influences my approaches in creating fashion garments, mostly focusing on innovation, and how clothing interacts with the human body and space

RIYADH: Saudi fashion designer Mohammed Al-Jishi is known for thinking outside the box when it comes to his futuristic cultural designs.

Al-Jishi is a self-taught fashion designer who uses his experience as an architect to create his own unique and eye-catching outfits that draw attention every time he attends a big event.

“My background in architecture influences my approaches in creating fashion garments, mostly focusing on innovation, and how clothing interacts with the human body and space. I tend to think way beyond the box, which results in creating these unique attires,” said Al-Jishi.

Ever since he was a child, he has always been interested in fashion, but due to gender stereotypes in Saudi Arabia, this was only a pipe dream.

“As a young boy, society always related fashion to girls generally, so I wasn’t even allowed to think that I had a shot in the industry.”

However, he believed that getting into architectural studies would open doors for him in other design areas including fashion.

“I made the decision that I am not going to let what others expect from me define who I am. I pursued fashion, I started reading about it, watching fashion shows over and over, it was something I could do without boredom.”

After enrolling in multiple classes to improve his fashion sense, he began creating outfits for himself.

“I moved from the Eastern Province to Riyadh because the chances were higher to prove what I’m capable of doing. I started participating in the big events that are happening in Riyadh and thankfully they were successful experiences.”

Al-Jishi drew media attention to himself during the Saudi Cup by donning a unique outfit, which he claimed was influenced by Al-Soudah mountains in Abha.

“I had a great time in the Aseer region, especially in the city of Al-Soudah, which is famous for its beautiful views and mountains, known as the ‘City of Clouds’ due to its high mountain terrain. It was a great experience, there was one thing missing, that was wings, so I added wings to my outfit which were inspired by the traditional way of wearing the Masnaf. I hope that in the future it will be possible to fly above the clouds in the Abha to enjoy the maximum experience of its beauty,” Al-Jishi told Arab News.

He continued: “Therefore, I used traditional southern attire as a reference for the design and developed a way of wearing them in a futuristic, modern style in line with this year’s theme, the past and the future, In other words, heritage in the future.”

At the last Saudi Cup 2023, Al-Jishi wore a look that he imagined Saudi Arabia’s future city-dwellers might wear. He began to envision the traditional Saudi attire being elevated, and the result was an outfit inspired by the thobe, the mohazam, and the bisht. They have been redesigned to honor Saudi Arabia’s history and to demonstrate how quickly the country is developing.

“My design represents a creation that is traditional but modernized in a futuristic perspective,” said Al-Jishi.

He wore a satin black outfit during Riyadh Fashion Week, representing the black oil that the Kingdom is famous for.

“In this design, oil was used as a reference for inspiration to express its importance and impact on the Kingdom’s economy. Shiny organza fabric was used to symbolize oil and its luster and fluidity. Additionally, a golden belt made of iron was incorporated into the design to add an industrial touch, symbolizing oil as the black gold,” Al-Jishi said.

As for the silhouette, it is a sophisticated dramatic narrative inspired by the thobe chosen to represent and celebrate fashion from the region of the first Saudi state.

Al-Jishi approached the fashion industry with the goal of making a unique piece, which he saw as a challenge.

His attitude to fashion design is influenced by his architectural experience, producing clothes that are not only physically arresting but also take into account the human shape and how it interacts with its surroundings.

“I was initially trained to conceptualize and design buildings, the architecture brings a unique understanding of form and space to their new endeavor. The main approach is to think conceptually and tell a narrative through design that adds depth and meaning to the garment, not just something that looks good,” he said.

“All these designs are the beginning of what is coming,” Al-Jishi added.

He draws inspiration from the Kingdom’s past and portrays it in a futuristic way, which makes his creations stand out. He is now developing his own clothing line.


Palestinian artist Dima Srouji’s ‘This is Not Your Grave’ explores architecture as shelter, resistance, oppression

Palestinian artist Dima Srouji’s ‘This is Not Your Grave’ explores architecture as shelter, resistance, oppression
Updated 29 February 2024
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Palestinian artist Dima Srouji’s ‘This is Not Your Grave’ explores architecture as shelter, resistance, oppression

Palestinian artist Dima Srouji’s ‘This is Not Your Grave’ explores architecture as shelter, resistance, oppression
  • The artist was the 2022-2023 Jameel Fellow at London's Victoria & Albert Museum and is currently teaching at the Royal College of Art in London
  • Projects by artists Abbas Akhavan, Asma Belhamar and Vikram Divecha will be developed over the course of the year and will complement Srouji’s work

DUBAI: Located in three distinctive areas of Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, a creative hub in the city, is a new site-specific work by Palestinian artist Dima Srouji titled “This is Not Your Grave,” which explores architecture’s uses as shelter, resistance and oppression.

The work is part of “Walk with Me,” Alserkal Avenue’s 2024-2025 edition of public art commissions curated by London-based Zoe Whitley, a curator, writer and the director of Chisenhale Gallery in the British capital.

Whitley was inspired by Alserkal Avenue’s accessibility and range of cultural offerings for visitors on foot rather than by car. The commissions thus invite the visitor to walk in the area and discover new work. The Alserkal public art commissions, which launched in 2015, realize ambitious new works in a way that makes them accessible to Alserkal Avenue visitors both aesthetically and intellectually.

“Library,” Dima Srouji. (Supplied)

A cornerstone of Srouji’s practice is what she refers to as “the failure of architecture.”

“It is meant to protect its people and its users, mostly in relation to the basic concept of architecture, which is shelter,” she told Arab News recently.

“Over the last few years, especially during COVID, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of shelter as a sanctuary and what it means to actually create a shelter in the middle of a crisis during my childhood in Palestine,” she added. “As we’re seeing it again now in Gaza under genocide, and that we’ve noticed in the imagery of Gaza since October, but also in Palestine in general since 1948, architecture has been used as a weapon to build a Zionist state,” the artist said.

“Library,” Dima Srouji. (Supplied)

One aspect Srouji says she has been thinking about in relation to shelter is how “it is not necessarily just architectural spaces and domestic spaces where you can hide in a tunnel underground or use the tunnel underground as a space of resistance, but also elements as simple as a bathtub used as sites of shelter … because if the bombing is happening in the neighborhood nearby and you can’t run downstairs as quickly as you need to, then the closest safe space is a bathtub. The same thing with the staircase.”

The three-part installation represents a bathtub, staircase and tunnel as architectural aspects that reflect shelter.

“Sanctuary,” Dima Srouji. (Supplied)

“I’m not just interested in them architecturally because of their sense of scale as compressed spaces and so on, but actually because they are spaces where people can gather and the family structure becomes the actual sanctuary and then they serve as shelter,” she said.

Whitley says she first encountered Srouji’s work in a group exhibition in Jeddah. “I was immediately transfixed by her sensitivity to her surroundings and careful study of how cities are made, then evolve. She shows us how we move through and within spaces — often not in the way an architect intended,” she told Arab News.

“Library,” Dima Srouji. (Supplied)

“Dima’s three-part installation very literally encourages a walk through Alserkal Avenue,” she added. “Every curator aims for ‘dwell time’ from viewers and Dima’s concept encourages us to gather, to linger and to reflect.”

Projects by artists Abbas Akhavan, Asma Belhamar and Vikram Divecha will be developed over the course of the year and will complement Srouji’s by activating and punctuating places across the site.

Srouji was 2022-2023 Jameel Fellow at London's  Victoria & Albert Museum and is currently teaching at the Royal College of Art in London. Her work is part of the permanent collections at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Victoria & Albert Museum, Institut du Monde Arabe, Corning Museum of Glass and TBA21.


Culture Summit Abu Dhabi: Five thought-provoking panels to catch

Culture Summit Abu Dhabi: Five thought-provoking panels to catch
Updated 29 February 2024
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Culture Summit Abu Dhabi: Five thought-provoking panels to catch

Culture Summit Abu Dhabi: Five thought-provoking panels to catch

DUBAI: Abu Dhabi is welcoming cultural leaders from around the world to the sixth edition of Culture Summit Abu Dhabi.

Taking place from March 3-5, this year’s edition is titled “A Matter of Time,” and will take place at Manarat Al Saadiyat.

Organized by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism, the summit will bring together thought leaders, artists and culture specialists to share inspiring stories, case studies and world perspectives.

Visitors can register their interest on the summit’s official website. All sessions will be streamed live on Culture Summit Abu Dhabi’s YouTube channel.

Here we take a look at five thought-provoking panels taking place at the summit:

Keynote speech by Adonis

On the first day of the summit, Syrian poet and essayist Ali Ahmad Said Esber, also known as Adonis, will deliver a keynote speech. He is the author of many collections of poetry and is considered the leader of the modernist movement in contemporary Arabic poetry in the second half of the 20th century. He has been a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature and is the first Arab writer to win the Goethe Prize in 2011.

The speech will be delivered at 9.50 a.m. on Sunday.

Ministerial dialogue

The 2024 edition of the summit will also inaugurate a new series entitled “Ministerial Dialogue,” jointly organized by DCT Abu Dhabi and UNESCO. The platform offers culture ministers the opportunity to share reflections with the global culture and creative sector on the outcomes of UNESCO’s MONDIACULT 2022 summit and how they see their work paving the path towards the 2025 summit. This year’s session will feature Mohamed Khalifa Al-Mubarak, chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi, and Ernesto Ottone Ramirez, assistant director-general for culture at UNESCO, along with several other ministers from around the world.

The panel will take place on Monday at 10 a.m.

Creative conversation with Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wole Soyinka

Famed Nigerian playwright and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wole Soyinka will be in conversation with Manthia Diawara, professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Soyinka was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature for “a wide cultural perspective and poetic overtones fashioning the drama of existence.”

The conversation will take place on Sunday at 10.40 a.m.

Creative conversation on Batman

Abu Dhabi Film and Television Commissioner Hans Fraikin will be in conversation with film producer Michael E. Uslan, popularly known as the “father of the modern Batman.” He will be joined by son and producer David Uslan as they look back at the history of the series.

The session will take place at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Panel on artificial intelligence

The hot button topic of the moment, artificial intelligence, will also get its time in the spotlight as industry experts answer the question: “Is the journey of AI worth the cost of human creativity?” Speakers including Harvey Mason Jr., CEO of The Recording Academy; Hans Fraikin, Abu Dhabi Film and Television commissioner; Cathy Hackl, prominent tech futurist and emerging tech executive; and Tom Wainwright, tech and media editor at The Economist, will take part in the panel.

The discussion will take place on Monday at 2.35 p.m.


Thousands of artists ask Venice Biennale to exclude Israel

Thousands of artists ask Venice Biennale to exclude Israel
Updated 29 February 2024
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Thousands of artists ask Venice Biennale to exclude Israel

Thousands of artists ask Venice Biennale to exclude Israel

ROME: Almost 9,000 people, including artists, curators and museum directors, have signed an online appeal calling for Israel to be excluded from this year's Venice Biennale art fair and accusing the country of “genocide” in Gaza.

Israel has been facing mounting international criticism, including in the arts world, over its military offensive in the Palestinian enclave, which happened after an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants in southern Israel.

“Any official representation of Israel on the international cultural stage is an endorsement of its policies and of the genocide in Gaza,” said the online statement by the Art Not Genocide Alliance (ANGA) collective.

ANGA said the Venice Biennale had previously banned South Africa over its apartheid policy of white minority rule, and excluded Russia after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Italian Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said the appeal was an “unacceptable, as well as shameful ... diktat of those who believe they are the custodians of truth, and with arrogance and hatred, think they can threaten freedom of thought and creative expression.”

He said in a statement that Israel “not only has the right to express its art, but also the duty to bear witness to its people” after being attacked by “merciless terrorists.”

The Venice Biennale press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Signatories of the appeal include Palestine Museum US director Faisal Saleh, activist US photographer Nan Goldin and British visual artist Jesse Darling, who won last year’s Turner Prize.

Dubbed the “Olympics of the art world,” the Biennale is one of the main events in the international arts calendar. This year’s edition, “Foreigners Everywhere,” is due to host pavilions from 90 countries between April 20 and Nov. 24.