The 10th edition of Arab Film Days was cancelled in March, but now you’ll be able to catch several of the highlights from the Arab Film Days programme at this year’s Films from the South festival.
The film selection, which will be presented as a separate section, consists of five new feature films and five documentaries, as well as three classics from the Egyptian master of cinema, Youssef Chahine. Each of the films foregrounds different aspects of the culture, politics and history of the Arab world. Be prepared for some heart-warming, forcefull and humourous cinematic encounters!
The festival dates for Films from the South are November 26–December 6. The full festival programme of Films from the South will be released early in November.
Shot between 2016 and 2018, The Cave is an unique testimony from the city of Ghouta close by Damascus, and the infinite network of secret tunnels below the city. Director Feras Fayyad, who’s last film was the Oscar nominated documentary Last Men in Aleppo, aims his lens at the hospital doctor Amani, and the strenuous conditions she and her colleagues work within. Deep sorrow and despair lives side by side with joy and laughter in their everyday work. As if the conditions weren’t difficult enough, Dr. Amani constantly has to justify her career choices to chauvinist men who believe a woman’s place is at home, making her situation all the more absurd.
The Cave is screened as a part of the programme section The Critical Room, an integrated part of Films from the South since 2003, debating contemporary issues in relation to current films.
Haifaa Al Mansour’s newest film focuses on the medical doctor Maryam from Saudi Arabia, who challenges the patriarchal system by enlisting herself as a candidate for city council. Her goal is to gain power in order to mend the broken road leading to the clinic where she works, which has been neglected by the authorities for too long.
Despite meeting resistance on all fronts, the first female candidate to city council ignite more and more interest, and Maryam’s development throughout the film highlight what women can bring to the future of Saudi Arabia. Al Mansour shows the slow expansion of Saudi women’s opportunities to shape their own lives, with a film that encourages them to break out of a system that has been holding them back.
After 40 years of prohibitions, the Saudi Arabian state has now opened up for cinemas and film production in the country, and Maryam is made with state support. Saudi politics is a disputed topic, but the fact that Al Mansour is allowed to create this film under what is still an authoritarian regime, is a clear step in expanding the freedom of speech for Saudi citizens. It is furthermore our responsibility as viewers to put pressure on the authorities in order to support other people like Maryam in the rest of the Saudi Arabian society.
Maryam will have its Norwegian cinema release by Selmer Media after Films from the South.
A Son, the film that was supposed to open this year’s Arab Film Days, is set in 2011, a few months after the Tunisian revolution. We meet Farés, Meriem and their young son Aziz, an upper middle-class family. During a trip to the village, the family ends up stuck in a military crossfire, and Aziz is hit by a bullet. Upon their arrival at the hospital, it becomes clear that Aziz is severely injured and in need of a transplantation in order to survive. As the waitlist is too long, the only alternative is an illegal liver transplantation from Libya, another country at the dawn of revolution. The tragedy triggers revelations of deeply kept family secrets and threatens the marriage of Farés and Meriem.
With his debut film, director Mehdi M. Barsaoui has created a solid drama with thriller elements, and he is clever to use the onset of the Arab Spring as a thematic backdrop to convey something intimate and difficult about family relations. Actor Sami Bouajila brilliantly displays the complexity in his character Farés, balancing a tough exterior with vulnerability as the family secrets comes to light. Najla Ben Abdallah, in the role of Meriem, conveys the bottomless despair of a mother, who is determined to save her son no matter what the consequences are. The overall result is a tremendously intelligent and intriguing film.
Marwa, Ayah and Mahmoud are the three brothers that the documentary filmmaker Dina Naser cast as the protagonists of her latest film, Tiny Souls, which has been exhibited at festivals such as CPH: DOX and IDFA. The documentary is about the need of running away from the war in Syria, and Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is the place where the siblings stay.
Naser started collecting material in 2012 when the children were 11, 9 and 5 years old. The documentary follows them through four long years, focusing specifically on Marwa developing from a young girl to a teenager. Since Naser didn't have the opportunity to be present and filming continuously, she provided a camera for the children to film each other while she was absent. These scenes, without an adult point-of-view, where the children's secret world is revealed, are the film's more powerful ones. Tiny Souls is a warm and honest documentary about respect, friendship and love.
It Must Be Heaven
The formula used in It Must Be Heaven is similar to the Palestinian master director Elia Suleiman’s earlier films: Suleiman’s alter ego, ES, is exploring the meaning that lies in words such as “identity” and “homeland”. The result is a highly enjoyable story where the mute ES travels from his hometown Nazareth, where his lemon tree is frequently watered by his neighbor, to Paris, where he tries to write, but is interrupted by an insisting bird on his keyboard – and on to New York to sell the script for his latest film. He meets many obscure characters on his journey, and the film consists of a series of choreographed sequences reflecting on life outside Palestine being just as absurd as the day to day life within Palestine.
It Must Be Heaven competed for the Palme d’Or in Cannes last year, and rightly so. The film is aesthetically pleasing, and even if the storyline can seem simple at times, it has an elemental desire to convey something about the Palestinian identity many have opinions on, but few manages to articulate concretely. As a viewer, you need to decide to indulge yourself in Suleiman’s absurdity to fully grasp It Must Be Heaven. It is both challenging and entertaining, making this a film it is impossible not to have an opinion on.
Meet Lea Tsemel, a human rights lawyer who specializes in defending Palestinians in Israeli courts. Because she is also an activist of the left, she has been harassed and spat on, threated on her life, and called ‘extremist’, ‘traitor’, and ‘the devil’s advocate’ – the latter seemingly without irony. This documentary traces her relentless work, in particular a case in which she defends a 13-year-old Palestinian boy from Jerusalem, who, after being accused of stabbing a man, is held illegally in custody and put under extreme pressure from police, media, and the public.
Through flashbacks we also learn about Tsemel’s young years and career in an Israeli society where public debate has become extremely polarized, but where the rights of Palestinians as an occupied people is slowly recognized – at least on paper. Advocate is a fly-on-the-wall-account of a fearless woman who has taken on the thankless task of being a watchdog. It is well-paced and empathetic, and appalling in its depiction of injustice and repression.
143 Sahara Street
143 Sahara Street is a fascinating and mysterious documentary where we follow the life around a café situated in the middle of the Algerian Sahara Desert. We hear the wind blow and see how it rips into the landscape, fading the blue paint on the inside of Malika’s café – a small stone house by the highway going through the desert. Drivers and travelers stop by to drink tea, have a cigarette, rest or exchange words with the middle-aged owner. Will the plans for a new petrol station across the street change her way? Or will the charm and calm of Malika’s keep the business running?
While her violent husband has been in jail, Noura, who works in a laundry, has found love in the tender-hearted car mechanic Lassaad. They meet secretly, sharing intense moments when they get the chance. Should they be discovered, the risk is five years in jail for adultery. Noura decides to file for a divorce, but when her husband Jamel is released early, everything is turned upside down. Before she knows it, Noura is trapped in a marriage she is desperate to break free from.
Tunisian actress Hind Sabri, known from numerous Egyptian films, is the star of this drama, that focuses closely on her character Noura as she is torn between society’s expectation of her to stay, and her heart’s desire to leave.The core of the story is a woman’s endless fight against a deeply patriarchal system, which in combination with brilliant acting and a well written script makes the storyline in Noura’s Dream feel both close and universal. Director Hinde Boujemaa’s strong debut display how we are still living in «a man’s world», and that the key to change is never to stop fighting.
The Egyptian documentary filmmaker Marianne Khoury uses her own life to examine themes such as identity and relations through conversations with her daughter Sara. The conversations and the histories unfolding through them creates a mosaic of four generations living or having lived in Alexandria and Cairo, in Paris and Havanna. In addition to Marianne’s family we meet «Uncle Joe» - or Youssef Chahine, the great Egyptian director himself! The result is a personal documentary about a family with strong bonds to films.
There are several similarities between last year’s opening film, Sofia, and Adam – two Moroccan films that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival with a shared focus on young women who have fallen pregnant. In Adam, we find ourselves in Casablanca, where we meet the heavily pregnant Samia wandering the streets looking for work and shelter. She knocks on the door of single mother and widow Abla, who owns a bakery. At first Abla is of little help to Samia, but luckily her eight-year-old daughter Warda wants it differently, and eventually Abla has no choice but to shelter Samia in the last days leading up to the birth.
The world-famous actress Loubna Azabal (Abla), also known from Sofia, and young Nisrin Erradi (Samia) complement each other in an excellent way, making the relation between the characters both moving and believable as it develops. Maryam Touzani’s directorial debut shines with confidence, and criticizes the patriarchal norms of the Moroccan society, like many of the films coming out of the country during recent years. The message seeps from the screen, like the aroma of the sweets the two women create in the bakery.
YOUSSEF CHAHINE – THE EGYPTIAN MASTER OF CINEMA
The director Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) contributed with artistically ambitious films through six decades and is the director that made Egyptian film internationally renowned. Chahine masterly managed to mirror the Egyptian society’s enormous political and social upheavals through his films. His first film Daddy Amin premiered in 1950, and his last film Chaos in 2007. Chahine is also known as the film maker who discovered the actor Omar Sharif. During Films from the South, you will have a chance to get to know this Egyptian master, as we present three of his films in collaboration with The Oslo Cinemateque (Cinemateket i Oslo).
Cairo Station is seen as the most influential Arab film ever and is Chahine’s great breakthrough film. It is a psychological melodrama, with Chahine himself in the leading role as the newspaper salesman Qinawi, who is sexually attracted to the soda seller Hanuma. The story in its entirety plays out at a train station in Cairo, a micro cosmos mirroring the Egyptian society. The film, which competed for the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival, clearly drew inspiration from Italian neo-realism.
Chahine takes on an autobiographical focus in the film trilogy named after his birth city Alexandria. The first film of the trilogy, Alexandria... Why?, takes place during the second world war, and introduces us to Chahine’s alter ego, the young actor Yehia, who is obsessed with Hollywood films. The film shows the diversity of the Egyptian society through an episodical narrative style. This is a very interesting film both in plot and form and is to this day one of Chahine’s most recognized films internationally.
The historical epic Saladin is Chahine’s only film where the dialogue is in Fusha (ancient Arabic) and is without doubt the director’s most splendid film. The story takes place in the 12th century under the third crusade, and is an epic about the sultan Saladin’s defense of Jerusalem against the Christian crusaders. The film was released in-between the two wars with Israel, and many read the film as an image of the politics run by president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his effort for a pan-Arabic movement.