Everything You Need To Know About Arab Films At Cannes 2019

By ANNA IVANOVA
14 May 2019
Culture, Cannes Film Festival, Arab
Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
Cannes Film Festival starts today, promising all cinephiles 11 fantastic days full of screenings, premieres and glamorous parties.

Cannes has always been a prestigious star-studded occasion with great European filmmakers and Hollywood celebrities on the guest list. The Promenade de la Croisette is used to host talented creatives from all around the world – and Arab world as well.

Last year, Middle Eastern cinema made its mark at Cannes, presenting a record five films in the official competition. Talents from Lebanon, Egypt and Iran showcased their works at the Cote d’Azur. Also, for the first time in history, Saudi Arabia participated in the festival, just a few months after the local authorities announced the opening of public cinemas. The country made a rapid move to the entertainment industry with a debut in the French Riviera, having its own pavilion, and John Travolta and Kelly Preston among the guests.

Arab influence was remarkable not only on the screens, but on the red carpet as well. Helen Mirren in Elie Saab, Indian actress Deepika Padukone wearing Ashi Studio, Victoria’s Secret angel Jasmine Tookes in Zuhair Murad, just to name a few style moments that made us proud. But, fashion later, films first.

So here is what you need to know about Arabs participating in the 72nd Festival de Cannes.

This year is another "first time in history". Nadine Labaki, Lebanese actress and director, becomes the first-ever Arab president of the Un Certain Regard jury, a section that presents films with various types of visions and styles, telling stories in nontraditional ways.

Last year her film, Capharnaüm, received a 15-minute standing ovation and the festival’s Jury Prize. “I never dreamt that we would be there. My co-writer Jihad and I used to go to Cannes as students. We used to beg people for tickets to attend a film. I can’t believe we’re actually there on that stage,” Labaki told GQ Middle East, describing her feelings after winning the 2018 Jury Prize.

Well, this year she will be on the stage, not even competing, but as a judge for the Un Certain Regard section for films made in Canada, the US, China, Brazil, Russia and Spain.

It Must Be Heaven by Elia Suleiman (In Competition)

Everything You Need To Know About Arab Films At Cannes 2019

Credit: Rectangle Productions

Elia Suleiman, a Palestinian film director, will compete for the Palme d’Or along with Pedro Almodóvar and Quentin Tarantino. He is best-known for his 2002 film, Divine Intervention, a surreal comedy and modern tragedy about the Israeli occupation of Palestine that won several awards, including the International Critics Prize and the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize.

This year he returns to Cannes with It Must Be Heaven. Suleiman, the central character and narrator, escapes from Palestine seeking an alternative homeland. He travels the world, from Paris to New York, but the promise of a new life turns into a comedy of errors: however far he travels, something always reminds him of home. The film draws parallels between global cities and Palestine, exploring identity and nationality and asking the question: What is the place we can call home?

Adam by Maryam Touzani (Un Certain Regard)

Everything You Need To Know About Arab Films At Cannes 2019

Credit: Ali n' Productions/Les Films du Nouveau Monde/Artémis Productions

Maryam Touzani, an actress, screenwriter and director, spent her childhood in her native Tangier, Morocco, before pursuing a university degree in London. She worked as a journalist at the International Film Guide and wrote about cinema, realising later that she wanted to tell her own stories. When They Slept (2012), her first short fiction film, travelled around the world through prestigious festivals. In 2015, her second short fiction film, Aya Goes to the Beach, won a large number of awards as well. Through Nabil Ayouch’s Much Loved (2015), she takes her experience further, by contributing to the development of the script and by working as artistic director.

Adam tells a story of Abla, a widow and mother to a 10-year-old girl, who struggles to survive and give her child the best possible future. After the death of her husband, she starts a home-based business from her kitchen that opens up on the street through a metal shutter. Every day she makes and sells homemade bread and all types of traditional Moroccan pastries. Closed-off from life, leading an existence devoid of happiness and taking refuge in her work, Abla has become old before her time. Unable to manifest love towards her child, she has replaced tenderness with pragmatism. When Samia, a young woman who is heavily pregnant knocks on her door, seeking shelter and overwhelmed by the weight of her burden of giving birth to a child without a father, Alba is unaware that this chance encounter will change her forever.

Papicha by Mounia Meddour (Un Certain Regard)

Everything You Need To Know About Arab Films At Cannes 2019

Credit: Ink Connection

Mounia Meddour was born and raised in Algeria. At the age of 18, she moved to France with her family after death threats they received during the Algerian Civil War. She enrolled in a master’s program in information and communications, and then switched over to documentary filmmaking. Her first short film Edwige (2011) won several awards and was featured in various festivals, including Dubai International Film Festival. Papicha is her first feature-film.

The film takes place in 1990s Algiers. The country is in the hands of terrorist groups seeking to establish an Islamic and archaic state. Nedjma, an 18-year-old student passionate about fashion design, refuses to let the tragic events of the Algerian Civil War keep her from experiencing a normal life and going out at night with her friend. As the social climate becomes more conservative, she rejects the new bans set by the radicals and decides to fight for her freedom and independence by putting on a fashion show.

As Meddour says, it is in part an autobiographical film: “Everything that girls experience on the university campus is indeed what everyday life was like for Algerian female students at the end of the '90s. Including me. With fundamentalism on the rise, oppression was all around us... Nedjma is a combative girl that dreams of staying in her own country. I was like her: when you’re young and unaware of the opportunities available overseas, you don’t want to leave. Leaving was hard for me – it happened overnight. It was an uprooting.”

For Sama by Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts (Special Screenings)

Everything You Need To Know About Arab Films At Cannes 2019

Waad al-Kateab is a young citizen journalist whose films from inside Aleppo drew the attention of the world to the horrors of the Syrian war. For Sama, a feature documentary telling her personal astonishing story, will be shown in the Special Screenings section.

Al-Kateab filmed her life in rebel-held Aleppo through 5 years of the Syrian uprising. She fell in love, got married a doctor and had a daughter all while filming the violence raging around her and in particular documenting the challenges the conflict imposed on women and children. Along with a close group of friends, she stayed in the city to fight for her dream of a free Syria, a struggle that ended in their defeat and exile.

Ambience by Wisam Al Jafari (Cinéfondation)

Everything You Need To Know About Arab Films At Cannes 2019

Ambience by Wisam Al Jafari from Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture, Palestine, is one of 17 short films selected out of 2, 000 submissions for the Cinéfondation section that focuses on films made by students at film schools.

Ambience tells a story of two young people who are trying to record music inside a refugee camp where they are living. If they win the competition, they’ll have the opportunity produce a full album. Ultimately, they fail to meet the deadlines due to the noise and chaos of the camp, but then they decide to use their creativity to turn the nightmare situation to their advantage, making music out of the noise.