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An Oscar for the Arabs

posted on: Mar 3, 2019

But better support is still needed for those in the Middle East who are trying to make quality films.



Since Rami Malek’s eloquent acceptance speech for the best actor award at the Oscars last Sunday, in which he talked about his Egyptian roots, social media has been abuzz with Arab pride. “No waaaaaaay!!! FREAKIN’ RAMI MALEK WON!!!! Arab Pride right here! We are so, so proud!” read one tweet. Its sentiment was widespread.

But Mr. Malek wasn’t the only Arab nominated this year. This might have been the first year that two films by Arabs and one actor of Arab descent were in the running for some of the most prestigiouscategories. The latest film of the Lebanese director Nadine Labaki, “Capernaum,” was up for best foreign language film (the second consecutive nomination for a Lebanese film in that category), and “Of Fathers and Sons,” by the Syrian, Berlin-based director Talal Derki, competed for best documentary.

Mr. Malek’s win is well deserved, and we should applaud the granting of the award to a person of Arab descent for his talent, and for his casting in a not-obvious role. But what is really needed is better support for Arabs working in cinema in the Middle East who are trying to make quality films. Over the past two decades, despite difficulties (political, financial and social), dedicated Arab filmmakers have continued to turn out fine films that have been an antidote to the perennially dispiriting news coming out of the former hotbeds of the Arab Spring and their neighbors.

Rami Malek with his Oscar for best actor for his role in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”CreditNoel West for The New York Times

Much of this output has required considerable self-reliance. If nothing else, the recent nominations ought to inspire more financial assistance from local investors and film institutions, the establishment of a more reliable distribution system, less threat of censorship, and wider viewership among Arabs who remain entranced by Hollywood blockbusters and formulaic Egyptian fare.

Two decades ago, most Arab Middle Eastern filmmakers came from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. But now there are directors also working in Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia.

Films from Algeria, one of several Arab countries in the Maghreb with a strong cinema, have been nominated a few times to the best foreign language category at the Oscars since the 1960s (and one of them, “Z,” won in 1970). But only recently have Arab films from the Middle East received such recognition. In 2016, “Theeb,” from Jordan — a country with a nascent film community — was nominated for best foreign language film. Competing previously in that Oscar category were two films by Hany Abu-Assad, one of several Palestinian directors who have taken up film in the past two decades.

Mr. Abu-Assad makes provocative but entertaining films about Palestinian lives with romantic story lines running in the background. His nominated 2005 film, “Paradise Now,” was about two would-be suicide bombers; 2014’s Oscar nominee, “Omar,” addressed the pernicious suspicion among Palestinians that one of their own is an Israeli spy. The first was shot in Nablus, in between curfews and military attacks, and was financed by European money; for the second, Mr. Abu-Assad’s Palestinian-American producer, Waleed Zuaiter (who also stars in the film), worked to obtain funding from independent Palestinian investors. “Wadjda,” by Haifaa al-Mansour, the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, was released in 2012 and marked the first time Saudi Arabia had submitted a film to the Oscars. It wasn’t nominated, but it was an important precursor to the country’s commitment to grow its own film industry.

A scene from “Omar,” directed by Hany Abu-Assad.CreditAdopt Films

This year, the nomination of “Capernaum,” a heart-wrenching realist drama centering around a feisty adolescent boy consigned to a life of poverty and hardship, made Ms. Labaki the first Arab female director ever to be shortlisted for the Oscars. But she had to largely finance it on her own, mortgaging her house in Beirut.

Ms. Labaki received a small sum for her film from the Qatar-based Doha Film Institute, one of the handful of organizations in the Arab world offering financing to Arab filmmakers across the Middle East. (The institute also helped fund “Of Fathers and Sons.”)

Her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, who doubles as her producer and film composer, has said that in addition to mortgaging their house they had to delay payments for their son’s school in order to fund the film. (He told me that he was eventually able to secure funds from local investors.)

Filmmakers across the Middle East also continue to face censorship or have to practice self-censorship. In 2017, the Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri, whose fourth film, “The Insult,” was nominated for best foreign language film last year, was briefly detained upon his return to Lebanon to promote his film there and forced to answer accusations of treason in front of a military court (he was cleared). His earlier film, 2012’s “The Attack,” which was filmed partly in Israel, defying Lebanese laws that prohibit travel to that country, had caused an outcry. It was banned in Lebanon and in several Arab countries and he had to relocate to Paris.

In a way, things have improved since Mr. Doueiri’s debut film, “West Beirut,” in 1998, when local funding was even more scarce, and even since Ms. Labaki’s first film, “Caramel,” a charming, lighthearted dramedy that premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Doueiri’s “The Insult” was largely funded by private Lebanese investors. Several Arab cinephiles are doing what they can to bolster Arab cinema and to help build Arab audience appreciation for local films. According to Rasha Salti, who selects Arab films for some of the leading international film festivals, “The Oscar run this year may not mark an ‘apotheosis’ per se, but rather an affirmation of the maturity of Arab cinema.”

Ms. Labaki, Mr. Doueiri, Mr. Abu-Assad, and Naji Abu Nowar, the director of “Theeb,” are but a few of the Arab filmmakers whose work reflects the contemporary Middle East, with themes that are as global as they are local.

“Capernaum,” which earned the director a 15-minute standing ovationwhen it premiered at Cannes last year, was beaten out by Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” at the Oscars. Like the Cuarón film, “Capernaum”addresses the plight of female laborers. After Zain, the sharp-witted young protagonist (who in real life was a Syrian refugee in Lebanon but who, with Ms Labaki’s help, has since been relocated with his family to Europe), runs away from home, he befriends Rahil, an Ethiopian migrant worker and mother of a baby boy. Intense and deeply moving, “Capernaum” is cinema at its most vital and its most potent.

Quality films that address overlooked issues can be successful when given the chance to be seen widely. With better financial support and fewer restraints, Arab films from the Middle East could very well be nominated for Oscars every year. And who knows — maybe soon one will actually win.