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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 February 2019

Sundance Festival 2019: Films from the Middle East to watch out for

Sundance starts today. We preview this year's highlights from the Arab world

Sara Balghonaim in Dunya's Day, the first Saudi film to screen at Sundance.
Sara Balghonaim in Dunya's Day, the first Saudi film to screen at Sundance.

The Sundance Film Festival opened its doors in Park City, Utah last night, January 24, with an opening night press conference at which festival founder Robert Redford announced he would be taking a back seat at future festivals, having been its public face for 34 years.

Today it enters its first day of screenings in. Sundance is probably the world’s leading platform, and market, for indie cinema, and films supported by the festival can usually be relied on to put up a strong showing at Oscars time, particularly in the non-fiction categories. Three of this year’s Feature Documentary nominees - Hale County This Morning, This Evening, Syrian documentary Of Fathers and Sons, and Minding the Gap – were supported by the Festival’s Documentary Film Programme, while RBG premiered at the festival.

This year’s event doesn’t have a huge selection of films from, or about, the Arab world to choose from, the region is nonetheless represented among the programme. In the World Documentary programme, Garry Keane & Andrew McConnell’s Gaza looks like one to watch. The film offers an intimate look into the heart of Gaza – the city and its people. It shows us not only the challenges they face every single day but also the hope, joy and humanity that can be found in every corner of this mosaic of life, through the eyes of teenager Karma Kaial, who dreams of escaping his entrapment there.

Also in the documentary section, Rachel Leah Jones & Philippe Bellaïche’s Advocate tells the story of Israeli human-rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, who has defended Palestinians against a host of criminal charges in Israeli courts for nearly five decades. Tsemel is a staunch supporter of compassion within the court system who is frequently subjected to harsh criticism in the press and in the public view, yet remains optimistically steadfast in her belief that justice can be served.

The documentary juxtaposes two of Tsemel’s cases, one professional and the other personal: the defence of a minor accused of attempted murder and a past case in which she defended her activist husband from an accusation of treason against the state.

Over in the shorts section, Raed Alsemari’s Dunya’s Day will be the first Saudi film ever to screen at Sundance when it competes in International Shorts. The satire, featuring an all-female cast, deals with a rich Saudi student who attempts to throw the perfect graduation ball by herself after her domestic staff abandon her, sick of her behaviour. Alemari told The National last month: “At its core, Dunya’s Day is about a woman’s relentless pursuit of status. Tired of seeing clichéd narratives of oppression that reduce Arab women to victims or saints, I set out to portray a flawed but fierce Arab woman who is neither.”

Fresh from her Lion of the Future Award at last year’s Venice Festival for The Day I Lost my Shadow, Syrian director Soudade Kaadan returns to the festival circuit with Aziza, a 13-minute black comedy looking at the lives of Syrian refugees.

Finally, Meryam Joobeur’s short Brotherhood tells the story of a Tunisian shepherd whose son returns home after a long journey with a new wife, causing rising tension between father and son.

Sundance Film Festival takes over the centre of Park City, and plenty of cinemas in the suburbs too, for 10 days until February 3. For more details visit sundance.org.

Updated: January 26, 2019 09:42 AM

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