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Arab cinema’s complicated relationship with the Oscars

posted on: Feb 4, 2016

Arab cinema’s complicated relationship with the Oscars
Noha Medhat

By NOHA MEDHAT

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Over the years Arab cinema has struggled, yet not for lack of quality or talent, to break through the filters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Although the numbers of submissions from Arab countries to the Academy Awards have been large, the number of nominations has always been small and the number of wins much smaller.

Egypt for instance, home to the oldest and most prominent film industry in the Arab World, has submitted more than 29 films for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but has never garnered a single nomination in the coveted category.

Youssef Chahine’s universally acclaimed film and magnum opus “Cairo Station” was the first Arab and the first African film to be considered for the award in 1959, and subsequently the first to miss out on the nomination.

Still from Youssef Chahine's iconic "Cairo Station". Photo source: michaelgloversmith.files.wordpress.com

Still from Youssef Chahine’s iconic “Cairo Station”. Photo source: michaelgloversmith.wordpress.com

Almost 60 years and dozens of submissions later, the situation hasn’t changed much. A total of ninefeature films from the Arab World have been nominated for the foreign language Oscar.

Only one nominee submitted from an Arab country, the 1969 French-Algerian production “Z”, has won the award. However, the film, which portrays the assassination of a Greek politician, did not truly represent the Arab World.

It was considered Algeria’s submission because it was co-produced by an Algerian producer, but the French film didn’t tell an Arab story, nor did it showcase Arab talents. It was not written or directed by an Arab screenwriter or Arab director, it also didn’t include Arabic or star Arab actors.

The same theme recurs with three of the other nine nominees. The 1983 Italian-French production “Le Bal”, which was co-produced by an Algerian producer and thus considered Algeria’s submission, portrayed a 50-year story about French society through a ball in France.

Still from "Z", the only nominated film from an Arab country to win the foreign language Oscar. Photo source: YouTube.com

Still from “Z”, the only film submitted from an Arab country to win the foreign language Oscar. Photo source: YouTube.com

Then came the 1995 French film “Dust of Life,” which was directed and co-written by Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb, also didn’t tell a story relevant to Arab identity. The film portrayed the harsh reality Amerasians had to endure in Vietnam following the Vietnamese War.

As for the 2014 film “Timbuktu”, it was Mauritania’s first submission for the Academy Awards. It was co-written and directed by prominent Mauritanian-French director Abderrahmane Sissako. Although the film was shot in Mauritania, it is set in Mali and deals with Timbuktu’s recent history.

That being said, hopes have risen after this year’s nominations rolled in. The well-deserved nomination for Jordan’s acclaimed “Theeb,” a film whose Arab authenticity is unquestionable, has put Arab cinema back into the global conversation.

These are the four other nominated feature films that did represent stories relevant to Arab identity but were unfortunately overlooked.

Paradise Now (2005)

Photo source: YouTube.com

Photo source: YouTube.com

The film, which was directed and co-written by prominent Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. It follows two young Palestinian men who decide to carry out suicide attacks in Israel as they embark on the journey to Tel Aviv.

Days of Glory (2006)

Photo source: YouTube.com

Photo source: YouTube.com

The film, which was directed by Bouchareb, shows the brutal reality of the French colonization of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The film follows a group of men from these former French colonies who are recruited for the French army during World War II.

Outside the Law (2010)

Photo source: YouTube.com

Photo source: YouTube.com

The film was Bouchareb’s stand-alone sequel to “Days of Glory.” It picks off where its predecessor left off, as it portrays the Algerian independence movement and the Algerian War following World War II through the lives of three Algerian brothers.

Omar (2013)

Photo source: YouTube.com

Photo source: YouTube.com

Abu-Assad’s complex film deals with Palestinian issues similar to those in “Paradise Now,” but through a love story. It follows a Palestinian freedom fighter who has to climb the separation barrier in the West Bank to meet the girl he loves, as he makes a dangerous decision which changes both their lives.