Arab Filmmakers Make Their Mark at Venice Film Festival
By: Norah Soufraji / Arab America Contributing Writer
This year, a number of Arab filmmakers made their international debuts at the 79th Annual Venice International Film Festival, which ended this weekend. This stunning selection included films from Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq offering an eclectic mix that deals with such themes as immigration, family, trauma, challenging gender norms, and romance against the odds. To top it off, there’s also a historical costume drama and a Thelma & Louise-style road film.
Founded in 1932, the prestigious Venice Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the world. Internationally recognized as one of the “Big 3” (alongside Cannes and Berlin), debuting at the Palazzo del Cinema overlooking the Renaissance canals guarantees filmmakers international recognition for their artistic cinematic vision.
Syrian filmmaker Soudade Kaadan received the Audience Award for her film Nezouh (which translates as “displacement”) and a film by Lebanese director Wassim Charaf Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous won the Europa Cinemas Award.
This year is also unprecedented because many of these films involve tackling controversial subjects which have previously not been depicted in Arab or Middle Eastern films.
Set in Damascus during the Syrian Civil War, Nezouh tells the story of 14-year-old Zeina (Hala Zein) who lives with her parents Hala (Kinda Aloush) and Motaz (Samir al Masri). Zeina’s family is one of the last remaining in the war torn neighborhood. Although daily life is fraught with the possibility of danger, Motaz is hesitant for the family to leave and face the uncertainty of life as refugees. Hala’s imaginative spirit is a light in the darkness and desolation of her environment. When a bomb drops on the house, leaving a gaping hole in Zeina’s bedroom, the camera moves to show a view of a bright blue sky. The possibility of remaining in the dark and living in fear becomes impossible. Director Soudade Kaadan presents us with a delicate yet formidable depiction of the struggles and conflicting emotions countless Syrians have faced when debating fleeing their homeland.
For My Country (Algeria)
Director Rachid Hami’s For My Country is a personal and powerful film which depicts how one Algerian family’s dreams of life in France begin to unravel. The story is based on the death of Rachid Hami’s own younger brother. The story begins with flashbacks where a small boy tells his brother “Candy is better in France”, this sets the stage for the future heartbreak and reversal of fortune to come. Aïssa (Shaïn Boumedine) accidentally dies while being hazed at a premiere military academy. Aïssa was filled with hope for the future and had been proud to be in training to be a French soldier. The film centers around the aftermath and how Ismaël, the older brother who is based on Rachid Hami himself, grapples with this unforeseen tragedy. He must also deal with the establishment who wants to brush the incident of his brother’s death under the rug.
Hanging Gardens (Iraq)
Hanging Gardens is the debut feature film from Iraqi filmmaker Ahmed Yassin Daradji. One of the most provocative and unusual of the Arab films featured at the festival. Daradji tells the tale of two brothers named As’ad (12) and Taha (28) who make their living picking through trash in Baghdad’s “Hanging Gardens” , the nickname for the dump. The lives of the two brothers takes a turn when one day they happen upon a sex doll while rummaging through the trash piles. The younger brother As’ad adopts her, chaos ensues, and his attempts to protect the doll ultimately lead to her being “kidnapped”. In an interview Daradji explained:
“I have twin goals–to question the status quo and to entertain. I want to pose questions not by being provocative or causing distress, simply by telling an emotionally engaging story.”
Daradji makes a point to challenge his audience with his unique storytelling. He also was sure to hire actors and crew from the neighborhood in Baghdad where he grew up.
Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous (Lebanon)
Lebanese/French director Wassim Charaf’s Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous is set in present day Beirut and follows the romantic relationship between Ahmed (Ziad Jallad), a Syrian refugee, and Mehdia (Clara Couturet), an Ethiopian domestic worker. This film shows the hardship and misery faced by foreigners and refugees in Lebanon. The two protagonists are confronted with racism and cruelty but find solace and lose themselves in one another. Elements of dark comedy also pervade the film’s modern chaotic landscape. Ahmed, who barely gets by making a living dealing in second hand metal scraps is also afflicted by a mysterious disease where he himself is slowly turning into metal, a metaphor for the trauma from the Syrian war. Mehdia, who tries to escape from her overly decadent Lebanese employers, serves as a representation of the unfortunate reality for foreign domestic workers throughout the Arab world.
Hailing from Morocco we have the debut feature film from Yasmine Benkiran, Queens. This film features rock ‘n’ roll, rebellious girl power, road rage, and a shootout. The film follows two prison breakouts Zineb (Nisrin Erradi) and Asma (Nisrine Benchara), along with a peculiar young girl they pick up along the way named Inès (Rayhan Guaran). The three are outlaws on the run from the police that pursue them. The film begins in Casablanca as the three evade the law and journey up towards the Atlantic coastline. In an interview, Benkiran said that the film is meant to be one which “celebrates freedom and the power of imagination”. Themes of women’s empowerment and rage against the patriarchy can be found throughout. Queens is a fast-paced, North African interpretation of the classic road films we have grown to love such as the likes of Thelma & Louise.
My Girlfriend (Egypt)
In the short films category we have My Girlfriend or Sahebty, a film from Egyptian director Kawthar Younis. In her official director’s statement regarding the film Younis said,
“I belong in a society where couples are pushed to extreme measures to express their love for each other.”
Through Sahbety, Younis attempts to explore the ways in which gender constraints affect the society she grew up in. The plot of her film features a young Egyptian couple that ends up blurring traditional gender norms in an attempt to achieve greater intimacy with one another.
The Last Queen (Algeria)
Last but certainly not least we have another selection from Algeria and it is a historical one. The Last Queen from Damien Ounouri is the first costume drama feature film of its kind to be produced in Algeria. The film tells the story of the 16th century Queen Zaphira (Adila Bendimerad) who fought against the tyranny of the pirate leader Barbarosa (Dali Benssalah)who had rid Algiers of the Spanish invaders and then turned and occupied the city himself. The history of Queen Zaphira is one which is often debated by scholars, however, that does not take away from the artistry of this latest adventure into cinematic historical drama. Hopefully, more such stories will be soon to follow on the big screen.
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