x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

First wide-angle view from Cannes

As Cannes reaches its climax, films focused on the Arab world stand out.

Nabil Ayouch's God's Horses. Photo courtesy Cannes Film Festival
Nabil Ayouch's God's Horses. Photo courtesy Cannes Film Festival

The final day at Cannes is always an odd affair. The works in contention for the Palme d'Or are all replayed as the world waits for the big prize announcement. The Egyptian entry The Last Battle, dealing with the fallout from the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations, and Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's Tokyo-set Like Someone in Love, are both in the mix. The critics' favourites are Michael Haneke's tale of ageing Amour and Leos Carax's bizarre and fantastical Holy Motors.

It's also the first opportunity to pause and reflect on all the films that have debuted. A feature of the festival this year has been the increasing importance of films from and dealing with the Arab world. This week saw two standout films from the region: El Taaib (The Repentant) from the 67-year-old Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache and God's Horses by the 42-year-old Moroccan Nabil Ayouch.

El Taaib deals with the amnesty given by the Algerian government to rebel Islamist fighters after the end of the civil war in 2000. One such fighter, Rashid (Nabil Asli), is seen descending the mountains returning to an emotional welcome with his parents. Not everyone is so happy. He is confronted by a neighbour convinced that he saw Rashid on television participating in an attack that resulted in the death of his family members. Trying to reintegrate into society, Rashid finds a job in a cafe. The action jumps between these scenes and those of a young pharmacist (Khaled Benaissi), who has separated from his wife (Adila Bendimerad). Allouache then keeps us guessing as to why this couple has such marriage problems and what this has to do with Rashid until an explosive ending.

Speaking to me under a marquee hiding from the unseasonal rain that became a surprise feature of Cannes this year, Allouache said, "Filmmakers from the region always feel like they have to explain details of the story so that international audiences can understand what is going on, so Arab films tend to have too much exposition. I decided to make a film where each time the audience is about to be given an exposition, I cut away. This way I get to make a mystery."

By contrast, we already know what happens at the end of God's Horses before the action commences. It's inspired by the tale of two brothers who were part of the May 2003 Casablanca bombings that killed 45 people. Ayouch has made a potted history of the brothers, starting from their dreams of football stardom at age 10, to their reactions to the death of King Hassan II in 1999 and the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. It's a tale more of broken dreams and frustrations than a terrorist handbook.

Both of the lead actors are from the shanty town of Sidi Moumen where all the suicide bombers came from. Ayouch says, "It's time for Arab filmmakers to tell our stories from our perspective."

One person who doesn't have trouble telling stories from his own perspective is the French philosopher, writer and filmmaker Bernard Henri-Levy. The Oath of Tobruk is his tale of how he encouraged Nicolas Sarkozy and his British and American allies to organise foreign intervention in the Libyan uprising that resulted in the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi. Featuring interviews with Sarkozy, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton, it's a fascinating insight into the war from an international perspective. Told in eight chapters, it shows the background to meetings between the rebels and the French president, how the decisions were made and why he thinks foreign intervention is important. Levy told me in an interview: "I did the film for Syria." He believes the French must act now in the region, cementing the belief, shared by all three films, that the lessons of the past should be learnt and used for the future.