This year we are seeing many films from MENA, that is an acronym for the Middle East and North Africa. More commonly called “Arab” cinema, (though the term is inaccurate because several countries in the region are not actually “Arab”) the films of this region are winning many awards and garnering much interest worldwide.
More than 10 Arab films participated in the Berlinale’s Forum and Forum Expanded programs this year, in addition to the ones which participated in the
Official Competition (“Inhebek Hedi”/ “Hedi” from
Tunisia and “A Dragon Arrives!” by Mani Haghighi from Iran). This makes an especially remarkable
year for Arab cinema’s presence in Berlin.
The Forum focus on Arab cinema, represented with films from Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia highlights mostly young directors whose works
explore both the past and present of their homelands.
The films included: “A Magical Substance Flows into Me” by artist Jumana Manna (Palestine),
“Akher ayam el madina”/ “In the Last Days of the City” (Egypt) by Tamer El
Said (international sales by Still Moving), documentary “Makhdoumin”/ “A Maid for Each” (Lebanon) by Maher Abi Samra (ISA: Docs & Film), “Barakah
yoqabil Barakah”/ “Barakah Meets Barakah” (Saudi Arabia) by Mahmoud Sabbagh and
Manazil (ISA: MPM), “Bela abwab”/ “Houses without Doors” by Syrian-Armenian director Avo
Kaprealian. Of course the 46th Berlinale Forum also screens films from European, Latin American and Asian directors.
The Tunisian film in Competition “Inhebek Hedi”/ “Hedi” by Mohamed Ben Attia, won the
Best First Feature Award and its leading man, Majd Mastoura, received the prestigious Silver Bear for Best Actor for his role as Hedi. Attia’s debut
feature film is a thoughtful love story about identity and independence in Tunisian society. It is being sold internationally by Luxbox.
Palestinian director Mahdi Fleifel won the Silver Bear Jury Prize for Short Film for “ A Man Returned”, a 30-minute portrayal of a young refugee struggling to make a life for himself
in Lebanon’s Ain El-Helweh camp, being sold internationally by 3.14 Collectif. He previously
made an award-winning documentary about his own experience as a refugee. The short film was also selected as the Berlin Short Film Nominee for the European
The Ecumenical Jury awarded the Forum Prize to Saudi filmmaker Mahmoud Sabbagh for his well-received romantic
comedy “Barakah Yoqabil Barakah”/ “Barakah Meets Barakah”, a social commentary on the lives of young people in Saudi Arabia. It shared the prize with
Danish production “Les Sauteurs”/ “Those Who Jump” – a film that also highlights the plight of Europe-bound refugees.
Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El-Said’s feature film “Akher Ayam El-Madina”/ “In the Last Days of the City” won the Caligari Film Prize. The film looks at a
young filmmaker’s struggle to complete a film about Cairo. It was the only Egyptian film to participate in the 2016 Berlinale Forum.
Lebanese filmmaker Maher Abi Samra’s documentary “Makhdoumin”/ “A Maid for Each”, a look at the legal system that controls the lives of Lebanon’s foreign
domestic workers, won the Peace Film Prize.
“Zinzana”/ “Rattle the Cage”
director, Majid al Ansari, from the Arab Emirates, was honored with Variety’s Mid-East Filmmaker of the Year Award at the Berlinale. The film is the first
genre movie of its kind produced in the UAE. It was financed and produced by Abu Dhabi’s ImageNation. It is repped for US by Cinetic and international
sales are by IM Global.
Projects “Mawlana”, based on Ibrahim Issa’s best-selling novel and shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize and director’s Mohamed Yassein’s “Wedding Song”
based on Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, the Nobel Prize Winner for Literature were being promoted at the Arab Cinema Center at the Market. Reflecting a decadent
Egypt from the 1970s, “Wedding Song” is one of the largest TV productions in the Arab World in 2016.
“Theeb”, a Jordanian Epic about Bedouins, is the
Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It played in Venice. International sales agent Fortissimo has licensed it to Film Movement for
U.S., ABC for Benelux, New Wave for U.K., AS Fidalgo for Norway, JIFF for Australia, trigon-film for Switzerland. MAD Solutions is handling the Middle
East. “Ave Maria” a 14-minute Palestine satirical short is the Academy Award nomination for Best
Short Fiction and is being sold internationally by Ouat Media. “ The Idol” (Palestine) played TIFF 2015 and other top
fests and has sold widely throughout the world through Canada-based international sales agent Seville. Not since Elia Suleiman won the Grand Jury Prize at
the 2002 Cannes Film Festival for “Divine Intervention” has a Palestinian film director made as
much of an impact as “The Idol” director Hany Abu-Assad whose “Paradise Now” and “Omar” both went to the Academy Awards.
Kudos for much of the success of Arab cinema go to MAD Solutions, the Cairo, Abu Dhabi and New York based
marketing and distribution company for its marketing and social media strategies as well as its release of “Theeb”, “Zinzana” and “Ave Maria”. It also
helped create the Arab Cinema Center which was launched last year at the Berlinale and EFM.
In all, 20 MENA films played in the Festival and Market this year.
And what of that other small country in the region called Israel (and/ or Palestine) which is not included in the term MENA? While Israeli films that
showed in Berlin received international praise, they will never show in any of the Arab countries and are sometimes boycotted by international film
festivals who succumb to censorship tactics.
Most of the larger Israeli features go to Cannes, Venice and Toronto; “Afterthought” went to Cannes, “Mountain” to Venice, “Barash” to San Sebastian”,
“Wedding Doll” to London and “A.K.A. Nadia” to Talinn Black Nights Film Festival. In Berlin many are screened as German Premieres.
What Israeli films have won acclaim lately? Is it possible that our hero, Katriel Schory, head of the Israel Film Fund, whose stand for true art has earned
him Israeli government censure at home (A prophet is never honored in his own land) and fame abroad with new countries striving to create national cinema,
is being eclipsed by the growth of “Arab” cinema?
“Sandstorm” directed by Elite Zexer (international
sales by Beta) made its way to Panorama from its world premiere in Sundance where it won the Best Actress Award for Palestinian actress Lamis Ammar’s
portrayal of a young Bedouin woman forced to choose between modern freedom or traditional societal strictures within an arranged marriage.
Panorama also screened “Junction 48” (international sales by The Match Factory) which received
international praise and audience acclaim. The Israeli-Palestinian hip-hop movie by Israeli-American filmmaker, Udi Aloni, was supported by the
Israel-based Rabinovich Foundation. The story is about Kareem who lives in a mixed Jewish-Arab crime-ridden ghetto outside Tel Aviv. He deals drugs and
lives dangerously until he discovers hip-hop and decides to express his life as a Palestinian youth along with young singer Manar. Palestinian and Israeli
musicians drive this music movie and for Aloni, just seeing the film made, and then shown at the Berlin Film Festival proves its success.
“Suddenly a group of people just choose to make a film and the film is extremely professional. It’s very important that this bi-national energy can create
high quality stuff, the high quality is almost the symbol of the resistance. We should not even have to tell the story about the issue. The fact that we
could create it is amazing,” Aloni told Euronews.
Thirty-seven-year-old Arab-Israeli rapper Tamer Nafar plays the lead role, and has known the 56-year-old Aloni for some time. “We have been on the same
demonstrations, in the parties since 2000, so we live in each other’s world. He has been to my concerts many times, he directed a video clip, I was in his
movies as a producer a few times. It’s not about an old generation and new generation, it’s just about creating the right generation,” he said. “He has
that gift of being a good story teller and director but he gives us the stage, no, he doesn’t give us a stage, we are building a stage together…
he has his own perspective but we are all on the same level,” said actress Samar Qupty. The struggle for equal rights for Palestinians or Arab Israelis
inside Israel is at its crux.
Panorama Documents screened “Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?” directed by Tomer Haymann and Barak
Heymann co-directed by Alexander Bodin Saphir and being sold by Austria’s Autlook. Forum showed “ Inertia” by Idan Haguel being sold by Oration Films’
Timothy O’Brian of the U.S., and “Between Fences” by
Avi Mograbi, being sold by Docs & Film’s Daniela Elstner of France. Culinary Cinema showed “Café Nagler” by Mor Kaplansky and Yariv Barel is being sold
internationally by Go2Films.
Teddy 30 (the retrospective of Teddy Award winners over the past 30 years) honored Dan Wolman’s 1979 film “Hide and Seek”/ “Machboim”. Berlinale Shorts screened Rotem
Murat’s “Winds Junction” from Sapir College which also holds international rights; Generation 14
Plus screened “Mushkie” by Aleeza Chanowitz from the Jerusalem San Spiegel Film School, being sold by Cinephil. Seven other films were sold in the market
by various sales agents.
One of the very special events I attended at the Berlinale this year was the Shabbat Dinner, held the first Friday in the Festival and hosted by Nicola
Galliner, Founder and Force of the Berlin Jewish Film Festival. There was a table full of Jews: the new Director of
the Jerusalem Film Festival, Noa Regev, PhD; Jay Rosenblatt, Program Director of San Francisco’sJewish Film Institute and its former Director, Peter Stein, now the Senior Programmer of Frameline, San Francisco’s LGBTQ Film Festival; Judy Ironside, the Founder and President of UK Jewish Film and of the sixth edition of the Geneva and Zurich Jewish Film Festivals, the new young director of
the Boston Jewish Film Festival, Ariana Cohen-Halberstam who recently moved from the New York JCC to Boston, the prolific Israeli
director, filmmaker Dan Wolman whose new film will soon be out and whose 1979 film “Hide and Seek”/ “Machboim” was
part of the Teddy 30th Anniversary Retrospective held by the Berlinale Panorama.
Talk was about films, about politics including gender politics, about our concerns, (we Jews are better worriers than warriors) and just plain gossip.
Now if my readers will excuse my interjecting myself into this article:
It is my opinion that the region of the world called the Middle East, and the three major monotheistic religions of the world whose origin is there had
better learn to do more than merely co-exist peacefully if we are to see peaceful and fruitful consequences which will set the world back upon its proper
Art breaks down borders; it is subversive rather than observant of the exigencies of ever changing governments. It creates new perspectives and breaks down
old ways of seeing. What I call “Cinema” is Art. Other movies may simply entertain and not aspire to more or they may propagate dogmas, but Art serves no
master; it is not tethered; it is freedom of expression which should be honored with freedom to travel.