Sunday, April 17, 2022

Top Arab Cinema Films of all time

In compiling a list of the best Arab films of all time, the same problems in making the African films list surfaced: problem of accessibility to many classic Arab films, lack of proper distribution of titles and inadequate quality print available with English subtitles. What makes this problem frustrating is that several Arab countries have had decades of thriving film industries and have produced worthy films. Just as an example, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon had thriving film industries from the 1950-70s but Syria and Lebanon’s film output was clearly impacted from 1970s onwards due to war (both civil and regional). Many older films were never digitized and if they were, then they were not subtitled as they catered to local audience. Although, a recent surprise discovery was seeing that Netflix has a plethora of Arab films ranging from Youssef Chahine’s notable films to those of Elia Sulieman, Annemarie Jacir, Najma Najjar, Ziad Doueiri, Maroun Bagdadi and several other works from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine. Netflix licensed 44 films from Front Row Films Entertainment so that is a good and hopeful sign.

Arab Cinema

There are 22 countries that make up the Arab world, spread from Northern Africa to Middle East and including a few Western and Eastern African countries. However, majority of the candidates for this list came from just 12 nations (order of most films seen): Egypt, Palestine, Algeria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq,  Kuwait, UAE and Yemen.

Top 25 Arab Cinema Films of All Time

1. The Time That Remains (2009, Palestine co-production, Elia Sulieman)

Elia Sulieman’s films often draw references to Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati due to Sulieman playing a character with deadpan expressions in absurd scenarios. However, there is nothing funny or absurd for most of Sulieman’s brilliant film The Time That Remains. That is because the film deals with the tragic expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 (‘nakba’), an event that created fissures and divisions in the Middle East, none of which have ever been healed and have gotten worse in the seven decades since. For the longest time, most of the world believed that Palestinians left peacefully of their own accord in 1948 but that has been proven to be a lie. Sulieman’s film shows that lie but doesn’t dive into details. Instead, a few scenes show the forceful surrender and forced departure of Palestinians. Events cover a few decades and centre around Fuad Sulieman (played brilliantly by Saleh Bakri) and his family/friends/accomplises. The director enters the frame in the film’s final third as the grown up version of Fuad’s son. Some of the director’s trademark humour attempts to enter the frame in the final 20 minutes but that can’t hide the tragedy of what has unfolded since 1948.

2. Chronicles of the Years of Fire  (1975, Algeria, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina)

Also known as Chronicle of the Years of Embers

An epic film that is ambitious in scope and charts a timeline from WWII to Algerian freedom. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 1975 and it is easy to see why.

The film starts off by depicting hardships of village life made worse due to a combination of the harsh weather and lack of water (rain coupled with a dam reducing access). This results in locals migrating from the village to the city for a better life by leaving their land, family and roots behind. Once in the city, the villagers are exposed to political ideas as topics of revolution, independence and World War occupy their thoughts. The film depicts that as WWII spreads, Algerians are forced to join France’s fight. The locals are tired of the French, which leads to some cheering for Germany, but they find themselves dragged into alliances and a war they want no part of. The film’s final segments show the emergence of Algeria’s quest for independence post-WWII and how revolutionaries are forced to hide in the mountains to carry out their attacks against the French.

3. Al-mummia (The Mummy, 1969, Egypt, Chadi Abdel Salam)

Also known as The Night of Counting the Years

A film that is often cited as a vital Egyptian and Arab film. Based on real life events of tomb looting, the film raises relevant questions about who should benefit from ancient Egyptian treasures: the locals or a central government.

4. Return to Homs (2013, Syria co-production, Talal Derki)

Once the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, Syrian and Western media were not allowed in the country. Derki was a rare person who was able to capture the events which makes the footage in the film essential in understanding what went on while the rest of the world continued to sleep. Derki and his crew continued filming even when bullets were fired in their direction. Such vérité footage results in many gut wrenching moments when people are on the verge of dying on-screen. By keeping the focus on a few key people, Return to Homs shows the human impact a revolution has on people. But one can also extrapolate these personal experiences to a larger scale and understand what motivates people to act the way they do. In essence, the film focuses on a few streets in a city but this microscopic focus helps shed a light on similar struggles going on in other streets not only across Syria but the rest of the Middle East.

5. Cairo Station (1958, Egypt, Youssef Chahine)

A classic work by Egyptian master Youssef Chahine that embodies what is best about Egyptian cinema of that era: charismatic characters, over the top scenarios, a hint of romance, seduction and a mystery.

6. Salt of This Sea (2007, Palestine co-production, Annemarie Jacir)

Many Palestinians left or were forced to leave their homes in 1948 with the hopes of returning one day but their ownership documents are meaningless because legally now their homes belong to someone else. So what happens when all the surviving members of 1948 are gone? Annemarie Jacir attempts to examine such questions by showing an example of a third generation exile who keeps the memories of pre-1948 alive. In the film, Soraya (Suheir Hammad) leaves her home in Brooklyn to visit her grandfather’s land and retrieve his money. However, the bank can no longer hand over the money because in their eyes that old Palestinian branch no longer exists. So Soraya decides to rob the bank along with two accomplices. What follows is a road movie but in this case, the road passes through non-existent towns and streets because the old Palestinian towns are either renamed or in ruins. What remains of the original towns? Only their memories. The film contains some scenarios that are hard to believe but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Jacir has scripted these scenes to provide a space for a dialogue that is hardly present in the Western world. A dialogue about happened in 1948, what will happen when the original generation of 1948 has perished and what happens when even the memories of that generation are gone.

7. Pomegranates and Myrrh (2008, Palestine co-production, Najma Najjar)

Like Salt of this Sea, the film uses an individual family’s example to raise issues that are hardly talked about. In the film, soldiers arrive at a Palestinian Arab family’s home and annex the land as part of a security pretext. The soldiers provide no proof but show their guns. The elder son Zaid (Ashraf Farah) retaliates and is arrested. The family, including Zaid’s bride Kamar (Yasmine Elmasri), has to make trips to the court to get him released while providing documentation of their land. In the meantime, settlers arrive with their own guns and attempt to occupy that land.

This sounds like wildly scripted fiction but it is not. 2021-2022 events in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem captured by cell phones show that this has been going on for a long time but never talked about and no action is taken.

The film keeps the drama at the human level with Kamar yearning to find her own identity and stay sane while Zaid is behind bars. However, even though the film maintains focus on Kamar and Zaid and their collapsing relationship, it is hard not to draw comparisons with this individual family’s case with that of the larger Palestinian Arab community that went through similar or worse ordeal.

8. Beauty and the Dogs (2017, Tunisia, Kaouther Ben Hania)

Based on a true story, this powerful film shows in harsh detail the lack of justice that exists in a corrupt society where men allowed to abuse their power and get away with anything. In the film, Mariam (Mariam Al Ferjani) is a young girl who is raped by police causing her to undergo a nightmarish Kafkaesque sequence of events. Miriam tries to report the rape but she is unsure who to trust and is hounded by the police members who committed the crime. She can’t even turn to her family for help as they would judge her as harshly as the police hounding her. At times, the film is tough to view given the never ending psychological torture that Miriam is forced to undergo. However, that harshness is precisely the point because no matter how hard it is to view these scenarios, it is nowhere near as the painful struggle of women like Miriam.

9. The Cruel Sea (1972, Kuwait, Khalid Al Siddiq)

Original title: Bas ya Bahar

The first and only film I have seen from Kuwait so far. The film shows Kuwait before oil brought it plenty of wealth. In the early days before oil, pearl diving was a lucrative way of making a living. However, pearl diving often involved a treacherous 3-4 month journey out in the sea on a boat. The film shows the rituals of the diving season and dangers associated with it. This diving was at a time before scuba gear and other gear that would have these dives easier. In the film, Moussaed (Mohammed Al-Mansour) goes on the trip so that he can make enough money to get married to Nura (Amal Bakr). The genuine highlights of the film are around the close-up scenes of divers on boat at ocean and the impact of heat and exhaustion on the crew.

10. The Little Wars (1982, Lebanon co-production, Maroun Bagdadi)

The film depicts the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 by using a trio of characters as lens to view the differing ideologies and beliefs of those involved. Soraya (Soraya Khoury) is a woman caught in the middle as she watches the two men she likes, Nabil (Nabil Ismaïl) and Talal (Roger Hawa), go off in different political directions.

In real life at the time of filming, Nabil Ismaïl was a photographer covering the civil war as shown in Bagdadi’s documentary Whispers which compliments this feature. In Little Wars, Nabil plays a photographer but a fictionalized version who plots a kidnapping. In both Little Wars and Whispers, the bombed buildings form a backdrop to events and depict impact of the civil war on everyday lives of the residents.

11. It Must be Heaven (2019, Palestine co-production, Elia Suleiman)

Elia Suleiman reprises his mostly silent character who travels from Palestine to Paris and New York. At the film’s start, he quietly observes the regular routines in his neighbourhood whether it is his neighbour stealing lemons from his tree or neighbours fighting or steely confrontations with gang members at a restaurant. Deciding he wants a change of scenery, he packs his bags for Paris and then New York but he finds that no matter where he goes, he encounters reminders of his homeland. Suleiman’s last feature The Time That Remains contained little humour. So he makes up for it by packing this film with delightful vignettes that feature a mix of deadpan or slapstick comedy and offers a meditative look at questions of identity and human behaviour.

In his previous three features (Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, The Time That Remains) Suleiman's character doesn’t speak a word. But in this film, he finally speaks. When asked where he is from, he first says “Nazareth” and then clarifies “I am Palestinian”. His character has aged in the more than 23 years since his first feature. The decision to speak isn’t the only change because in the film’s final scene, his character has a slight change of expression, something which wasn’t present previously. Is the change in expression a sign of hope that maybe things will get better? Although, that hope is hard to come by given events since the film premiered at Cannes in 2019.

12. Le Grand Voyage (2004, Morocco co-production, Ismaël Ferroukhi)

A father wants to make the pilgrimage to Mecca so he asks his son to drive all the way from France to Saudi Arabia. The son is initially not happy with his father’s decision but gradually gains a better understanding of his father as the journey progresses. The film manages to stand out from a traditional road feature by incorporating some engaging elements, such as the mysterious Eastern European woman the duo pick up. The woman’s mysterious disappearance and reappearance fits in perfectly as does the predictable actions of the Turkish man the son befriends. The journey ends up becoming a metaphor for life and each experience helps broaden the son’s mind. The end point of the journey at Mecca features the film’s strongest and most emotional moment.

14. Rana’s Wedding (2002, Palestine co-production, Hany Abu-Assad)

15. Between Heaven and Earth (2019, Palestine co-production, Najwa Najjar)

A beautiful film shows the difficulty of a couple in getting a divorce as the strains of occupation put up new obstacles and uncover a mysterious past.

16. Until the Birds Return (2017, Algeria co-production, Karim Moussaoui)

A fascinating film that combines three stories in a creative and surprising manner. 
Two music sequences come as a surprise but heighten the material.


17. Abou Leila (2019, Algeria/France, Amin Sidi-Boumédiène)

Director Amin Sidi-Boumedine has crafted an incredible film that uses the Algerian civil war as a springboard to dive into long-lasting impact of violence and trauma on citizens. Aided by Kaname Onoyama’s stunning visuals, Abou Leila uses the vast beautiful desert as a worthy canvas to explore this nightmarish tale that is a blend of different genres evoking Lynchian, Western and metaphysical themes.

18. Caramel (2007, Lebanon co-production, Nadine Labaki)

Nadine Labaki’s delightful debut feature is about five women debating their relationships. Four of the five women work in a beauty salon and their day is packed with gossip about their relationships and life in Beirut. The women also support each other and share a nice bond which comes in handy for situations when things get difficult.

19. A Summer in La Goulette (1996, Tunisia co-production, Férid Boughedir)

The bold and witty A Summer in La Goulette tackles a coming of age story of teenage girls, aching to fall in love or having their first kiss and more.

20. Bab’ Aziz (2005, Tunisia co-production, Nacer Khemir)

Bab’Aziz, the third film in Nacer Khemir’s desert trilogy, beautifully depicts the desert’s beauty in each frame. Also, the Sufi music against the background of giant sand dunes makes for a calm and mesmerizing experience.

21. Son of Babylon (2009, Iraq co-production, Mohamed Al Daradji)

Son of Babylon, a beautiful and emotional road journey film, is set a few weeks after the invasion of 2003 and depicts the devastating human impact on the lives of local Iraqis.

22. West Beirut (1998, Lebanon co-production, Ziad Doueiri)

A charming coming of age film related to the start of the Lebanese civil war that highlights how neighbours that got along one day became enemies the next.

23. The Silences of the Palace (1994, Tunisia co-production, Moufida Tlatli)

This film compliments and both contrasts Beauty and the Dogs. In Moufida's film, sexual abuse is not meant to talked about but instead quietly buried within the palace walls.

24. Divine Intervention (2002, Palestine co-production, Elia Suleiman)

Suleiman’s uses his trademark style to highlight absurd scenarios related to borders and checkpoints. There are some delightful references such as the red balloon free to roam across the border and the action sequence straight out of a comic book.

25. Clash (2016, Egypt co-production, Mohamed Diab)

Mohamed Diab’s powerful film depicts the division in Egyptian society that came to a boil in 2013. The entire film takes place in the confined space of a police van and that creates a powerful immersive experience!

Films by nations:

Top 10:

Palestine: 3
Egypt: 2
Algeria: 1
Syria: 1
Tunisia: 1
Kuwait: 1
Lebanon: 1

Women directors (3): Annemarie Jacir (Salt of This Sea), Najma Najjar (Pomegranates and Myrrh), Kaouther Ben Hania (Beauty and the Dogs).

Top 25:

Palestine:  7
Tunisia: 4
Algeria: 3
Egypt: 3
Lebanon: 3
Syria: 2
Kuwait: 1
Morocco: 1
Iraq: 1

6 films by 5 Women directors: Annemarie Jacir (Salt of This Sea), Najma Najjar (Pomegranates and Myrrh, Between Heaven and Earth), Kaouther Ben Hania (Beauty and the Dogs), Nadine Labaki (Caramel), Moufida Tlatli (The Silences of the Palace).

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