10 great Middle Eastern films you’ve probably never heard of
Issues of representation — or rather the lack of representation — in cinema are birthmarks of the global cultural economy. These issues are magnified in what is unshown on big screens and, consequently, popular consciousness is denied.
In the past five years, numerous Arab films have shone at international film festivals — winning awards, gaining critical acclaim and throwing a much-needed non-Western light on Middle Eastern culture. For reasons that beg further inquiry, South African cinemas are extremely light on, if not indifferent to, the regular buying and screening of Middle Eastern films that are not anchored by a United States military presence or an Orientalist gaze.
So here is a list of 10 recent Middle Eastern-made films that capture the complexities of a region overshadowed by a single story of war and conservatism. Treat this list as a mere highlight reel of what is an expansive canon of Middle Eastern cinematic gold.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Genre: Iranian-Western, horror
Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
As far as pioneering in cinema goes, Amirpour’s debut is a triumph of genre, style and social commentary. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night tells the story of a ghostly Iranian town named “Bad City” and the lonesome vampire who stalks the streets — preying on men. An example of Iranian New Wave cinema, Amirpour’s film is dark, twisty and irresistibly subversive.
Available online: Netflix
Genre: Comedy, drama
Writer: Jafar Panahi
Director: Jafar Panahi (technically)
This is an award-winning film stitched together by Panahi, the Iranian cinematographer under a 20-year filmmaking and travel ban for his realist “anti-regime” films. Made with covertly shot smartphone, selfie camera and passenger camera footage, Taxi Tehran is technically directorless — which is how the film got around its ban. In it, Panahi plays himself — an eccentric filmmaker turned taxi driver. The interactions between the driver and his riders offer a glimpse of social problems and daily life in Tehran. The film is a heady comment on the state of media freedom in Iran.
Available online: Netflix
Writer: Maryam Keshavarz
Director: Maryam Keshavarz
A Sundance Audience award-winner, Circumstance is a love story.
It tells of two Iranian teenage girls who fall in love and the systems they must go up against to defend their love. Making this film with queer protagonists jeopardised Iranian-American Keshavarz’s ability to return to her homeland of Iran. But, to give visibility to the lived experiences of those around her, she made it anyway.
Available online: YouTube (free)
Genre: Adventure, Bedouin-Western
Writers: Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour
Director: Naji Abu Nowar
Set during World War I, Theeb is British-born Jordanian Nowar’s debut coming-of-age film about a Bedouin boy who guides a British officer through the desert towards a secret destination. Nowar and his team spent months living in the desert with a Bedouin tribe to immerse themselves in their culture and ways of storytelling. The result: an Oscar-nominated film that boasts a cast of real Bedouin tribesmen and holds up a mirror to the railroading of Arab identity over time
Genre: Drama, romance
Writer: Hany Abu-Assad
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Omar is the Oscar-nominated story of a young Palestinian freedom fighter who, after being linked to the death of an Israeli soldier, gets roped into espionage. Reminiscent of Cold War spy thrillers, Abu-Assad’s film engages with the wall, the guy, the girl and a social currency of violence and secrecy. The wall is the concrete barrier built to isolate Palestinians from Israelis, around which Omar seesaws between scenes of violence and romance.
Genre: Short film, comedy
Writers: Basil Khalil and Daniel Yáñez Khalil
Director: Basil Khalil
Ave Maria is a short Oscar-nominated story about five Palestinian nuns in the West Bank whose silent routine is crashed by a car accident involving an Israeli settler family and a convent wall. Director and writer Khalil, whose father was a Palestinian pastor in the family’s hometown of Nazareth, creates from a place of lived experience and exasperation and combines themes of religious rigidity from his childhood with satirical dark comedy.
The Time That Remains
Writer: Elia Suleiman
Director: Elia Suleiman
Depicting the creation of the state of Israel from 1948 to the present day through versions of the writer’s own family over two generations, The Time That Remains is, in many ways, a stylised, hyperbolic memoir. Writer-director Suleiman recreates his and his father’s experiences under different waves of Israeli occupation in an edifying kind of self-deprecation. It is unsentimental, awkwardly funny and beautifully made.
Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim
Genre: Fantasy, drama
Writers: Ahmed Amer and Ibrahim El Batout (story)
Director: Sherif El Bendary
This Egyptian film tells a story of friendship and self-discovery through Ali, Ali’s friend Ibrahim and a goat — believed to be the reincarnation of Ali’s girlfriend. The questions about life, death, life after death and death before life posed by Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim cross cultures and oceans with a feel-good dash of absurdity. Besides, who doesn’t love a goat?
Writer: Maysaloun Hamoud
Director: Maysaloun Hamoud
Bar Bahar (In Between) follows the lives of three Palestinian women living together in Tel Aviv who try to balance the conflict between their Palestinian roots and the West-leaning liberal culture in which they find themselves. A reflection of writer-director Hamoud’s own story, the film shines a light on the particular experiences of women considered outsiders both in Tel Aviv and back home.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Genre: Crime, drama
Writers: Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
An unidentified victim of an unidentified crime, a group of ideological opposites and one long, rainy night: this is the stage for acclaimed Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s award-winning Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. It is a dark, beautifully shot detective drama in which the crime itself is omnipresent — leaving the action to unfold among a motley crew of crime fighters.