A psychological thriller set in the West Bank and a story of a fugitive in Cairo are among the most anticipated movies about to be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this year.
Some of last year's films that featured stories or directors from the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) dealt head-on with the Arab Spring. This year's selection at the TIFF, which begins today and runs until September 15, will feature world premieres with high-profile actors such as Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas in The Invisible Woman or Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in August: Osage County.
But other noteworthy films will chronicle the continuing challenges Arabs face in the fallout from the unrest in the Mena region. "Obviously, there are shared concerns that are borne in the immediate lived political, social and economic reality of the Arab world," says Rasha Salti, TIFF's programmer for Middle Eastern and African cinema.
In The Square, which screened as a work-in-progress but still won an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the director Jehane Noujaim captures the shifting attitudes of protesters in Tahrir Square through two years of political changes in Egypt. While Noujaim's documentary focuses on numerous individuals and their views, Ahmad Abdalla's Rags and Tatters more closely follows a single individual — an unnamed fugitive who escaped during an infamous jailbreak in the early days of Egypt's revolution.
Abdalla, whose film weaves documentary vignettes with Sufi chants and poetry, picks up where his earlier work, Microphone, ended. That production premiered at the TIFF in 2010 and Abdalla is just one of a number of filmmakers returning to the festival with projects this year.
Rashid Masharawi, the director behind Laila's Birthday, which screened at the TIFF in 2008 and subsequently won awards at various film festivals, returns with Palestine Stereo. His latest drama follows two brothers in the West Bank who become homeless after an Israeli air raid and turn to working odd jobs to earn enough money to move to Canada.
The director Hany Abu-Assad's Omar is another highly anticipated feature. This psychological thriller won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year with a story of a young baker in the occupied West Bank who risks climbing over the separation wall for friendship and love. One of Abu-Assad's earlier films, Paradise Now, marked the first time a Palestinian entry earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
The civil war in Syria drove Mohamad Malas to direct Ladder to Damascus, which was filmed largely in secret and at significant risk to his crew. His drama takes place almost entirely within a traditional home in the heart of old Damascus and delves into the psyche of 12 young Syrians as the war rages just outside their door.
Filmmakers new to the TIFF this year with much-anticipated world premieres include Nejib Belkadhi, whose Bastardo takes its name from the unfortunate nickname of an orphan who sees a reversal in his misfortune. Belkadhi's first film, VHS-Kahloucha, was a "worldwide runaway success", says Salti.
Certain films from India are also generating considerable buzz.
Last year, the festival's organisers shone a spotlight on new movies from Mumbai. This year's selection includes an eclectic mix of films from around the country, such as Faith Connections, a documentary about spiritual devotion, and The World of Goopi and Bagha, which reinterprets an Indian children's tale through cartoon characters. "It shows Indian animation to possess its own unique, vibrant style, and it will bring a traditional Indian tale to families everywhere," says Cameron Bailey, the artistic director for the TIFF.
"I'm especially pleased to be presenting Ritesh Batra's Cannes hit The Lunchbox, which I think will go on to much success all over the world," adds Bailey. The Lunchbox stars the actor Irrfan Khan, of Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire fame, in a story about how a misdelivered lunch box brings about an unlikely romance.
The Toronto International Film Festival begins today and continues until September 15. Visit tiff.net for details