In ART, General

With the world’s most prestigious film festival drawing to a close last weekend, Selections highlights the strong showing of Middle Eastern and North African films that had critics buzzing.

With such a strong cohort of MENA films making waves at Cannes last year, including the massive success of Nadine Labaki’s Jury Prize smash, Capernaum, which went on to become an Oscar contender and took home more than $1.5m at the US box-office, few could have predicted such a strong showing of MENA filmmakers this year.

However, MENA films again rose to the occasion. After the Cannes lineup was unveiled in April, many critics saw it as a welcome surprise that seven Arab films made the final selection.

The MENA voices platformed this year—which certainly ranks high among the festival’s 75-year history—is testament to the growing importance and international profile of MENA filmmakers. It’s also a reminder of the years in which MENA filmmakers were little regarded in the West, and how that is beginning to change.

With competition among film festivals high, it appears that Cannes has gone to great lengths to secure the best MENA productions this year.

Case in point being Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s latest project, his long-awaited comeback It Must Be Heaven, his first feature since his 2009 film that was in the running to win the Palme d’Or, The Time That Remains. Portraying “a burlesque saga exploring identity, nationality and belonging,” Suleiman’s fourth film builds on his signature style of using film as an attempt to escape Palestine in search of life anew. Here we encounter a film shot in various cities, including Paris and New York, places which we learn contain strong symbolic references to Palestine as well.

The longing for home and Palestinian identity could also be found in Wisam al-Jafari’s short Ambience, showing at the Cinéfondation side-bar for student films. The black-and-white film tracks the trials and tribulations of two young refugees who aspire to become musicians by entering a prize that would give them the opportunity to record an album. It’s a heart-warming tale of perseverance and the ability of music to bring people together.

Still from Ambience by Wisam Al-Jafari. Photo source: Cannes Festival wesbite.

The voices of female directors were also notably more present this year, including the debut of two Arab film-makers in the Un Certain Regard section. In Moroccan director Maryam Touzani’s debut film Adam, we encounter the somber narrative of a single working-class mother struggling to provide for her 10-year-old daughter. After a chance encounter with another pregnant woman, Touzani’s protagonist begins to see her world unravel.

In the debut work of Algerian director Mounia Meddour, entitled Papicha, a harrowing denunciation of extremism and patriarchy manifest. Set during a civil war in the 1990s, the film presents the feminist perspective of an open-minded college student who, after losing her friend in a terrorist attack, defies societal expectations by organizing a fashion show amongst the violence and chaos.

There were also a number of films this year competing in Cannes made by Arab directors that were about non-Arab subjects, including Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo, the sequel to his 2017 three-hour film about handsome French-Arab men, and white French women, enjoying the trappings of life during a summer set in the 1990s.

All told, these and other Arab voices shine brightly at Cannes, now in its 72nd edition. Their output proves that MENA filmmakers are starting to gain traction, long-term engagement and recognition at international film festivals, but also that their stories are about more than just the Arab and Muslim experience. Proving that MENA filmmakers have a lot to offer, particularly when it comes to using the language of film to tell universal stories, the panorama and take away from Cannes this year seems to be that film is a medium that can and should bring people together.

The Cannes Film Festival ran from May 14th, 2019 until the 25th, 2019.