Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 July 2019

Arab films at Cannes: A guide to the region's offerings at this year's festival

Here's your rundown of movies from the region competing for prizes at this year’s cinematic celebration

'Adam' by Maryam Touzani will compete in the Un Certain Regard section. Courtesy Ali n' Productions / Les Films du Nouveau Monde / Artémis Productions
'Adam' by Maryam Touzani will compete in the Un Certain Regard section. Courtesy Ali n' Productions / Les Films du Nouveau Monde / Artémis Productions

The Cannes Film Festival returns on Tuesday with a host of hotly anticipated premieres that will bring the great and the good of Hollywood and the European film industry on to the red carpet for 11 days of glitz, glamourand going to the movies.

Among the biggest draws at this year’s festival is Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie in a Charles Manson-era comedy drama. Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic Rocketman is also creating a buzz, as is Bong Joon-ho’s return (without his Netflix colleagues, who he attended Okja’s premiere with two years ago) with Parasite. Ken Loach is also making a welcome comeback at the festival with his latest film, Sorry We Missed You.

This week, Cannes also announced it is jumping on the Academy’s name-changing bandwagon. With the Oscars body last month renaming the Best Foreign Language Film award as Best International Film, the French film festival has followed suit by announcing it has rebranded its Closing Film as the Last Screening. Although we’re confident this will make little tangible difference to the festival, or the screening itself, which this year will be Eric Toledano’s new film The Specials, starring Vincent Cassel and Reda Kateb. It will close the whole event on May 25.

Representation from the region

Elia Suleiman in 'It Must Be Heaven'. Courtesy Rectangle Productions
Elia Suleiman in 'It Must Be Heaven'. Courtesy Rectangle Productions

Away from the big gala films, however, there’s plenty of smaller-scale international fare from which to choose, from those involved in the festival’s competitions to those that aren’t. This includes a handful of films from the Arab world that will make their way to Cannes’ Promenade de la Croisette this month.

There will only be one film by an Arab filmmaker in contention for the Palme d’Or, the main feature competition, and that’s Elia Suleiman’s comedy It Must Be Heaven. The Palestinian director won the festival’s Jury Prize in 2002 with Divine Intervention, and he returns with a new film in which he also stars alongside Zinzana and Lone Survivor’s Ali Suliman. In the film, Suleiman travels to different cities across the world looking for unexpected parallels to his homeland.

Two Arab films compete in the Un Certain Regard section, a category for underground and non-traditional films. The first, Papicha by Algerian filmmaker Mounia Meddour, is set in Algiers in 1997, when the city was in the hands of extremists who wanted to establish an oppressive state. Amid all this, the film’s protagonist Nedjma, a young university student with a passion for style, decides to then organise a fashion show with young women on her campus.

The other Arab film in the section is Moroccan movie Adam by Maryam Touzani, which tells the story of two women, a widow and mother Abla, and Samia, who is heavily pregnant. When the latter is forced to leave the countryside after her baby’s father turns his back on them, she takes shelter in Abla’s home, an encounter that creates a life-changing bond between them.

There will also be a film from the region featured in this year’s Special Screenings. For Sama is both an intimate story and an epic journey into the female experience of war. The documentary tells the true story of co-­director Waad Al Kateab’s life in Aleppo during the war as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while the conflict continues around her. Al Kateab’s camera captures stories of loss, laughter and survival as she wrestles with the question of whether or not to flee the city to protect her daughter, when leaving means abandoning a struggle for which she has already sacrificed so much. The film has picked up both the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award for Best Documentary at the SXSW Festival.

The official selection of short films at Cannes features one Arab short among the Cinefondation ­line-up. Ambience by Wisam Al Jafari is a Palestinian film about two young people trying to record music in a refugee camp so they can enter a competition. If they win, they’ll have the opportunity to produce a full album. At first, the chaos and problems of life in the camp prohibit them from making the music they want, but they soon realise they can use the camp to their advantage instead, utilising its sounds to create unique tunes.

A place on the panel

epa07464294 (FILE) Libanese director Nadine Labaki poses during the photocall for 'Capharnaum' at the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, 18 May 2018 (reissued 26 March 2019). Organizers announced on 26 March 2019 that Nadine Labaki will be President of the Un Certain Regard Jury for the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, running from 14 to 25 May 2019. EPA/SEBASTIEN NOGIER
Nadine Labaki at the Cannes Film Festival last year. EPA

Arab filmmakers won’t only be competing with their films at Cannes this year – they’ll be judging them, too. In a regional first, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki has this year been selected as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury.

Labaki has been a regular fixture at Cannes since early in her career. In 2004, she was part of the festival’s Cinefondation Residency, writing and developing her first feature film Caramel (2007).

Her next two films, 2011’s Where Do We Go Now? and Capernaum (2017) both had premieres at Cannes, with the latter winning the Jury Prize last year before being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in February.

Labaki is joined on this year’s Un Certain Regard jury by directors Lisandro Alonso, from Argentina, and Belgian Lukas Dhont, as well as German producer Nerhan Sekerci-­Porst and French actress Marina Fois. The jury will oversee a section containing 16 films, with the Arabic entrants facing competition from movies made in countries such as China, Brazil, Russia and the US.

The Cannes Film Festival runs from Tuesday until 25. For more details, go to www.festival-cannes.com

Updated: May 11, 2019 12:18 PM

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