By Nana Asfour
March 2, 2019
Since Rami Malek’s eloquent acceptance
speech for the best actor award at the Oscars last Sunday, in which he talked
about his Egyptian roots, social media has been abuzz with Arab pride. “No
waaaaaaay!!! FREAKIN’ RAMI MALEK WON!!!! Arab Pride right here! We are so, so
proud!” read one tweet. Its sentiment was widespread.
But Mr. Malek wasn’t the only Arab
nominated this year. This might have been the first year that two films by
Arabs and one actor of Arab descent were in the running for some of the most
prestigious categories. The latest film of the Lebanese director Nadine Labaki,
“Capernaum,” was up for best foreign language film (the second consecutive
nomination for a Lebanese film in that category), and “Of Fathers and Sons,” by
the Syrian, Berlin-based director Talal Derki, competed for best documentary.
Mr. Malek’s win is well deserved, and we
should applaud the granting of the award to a person of Arab descent for his
talent, and for his casting in a not-obvious role. But what is really needed is
better support for Arabs working in cinema in the Middle East who are trying to
make quality films. Over the past two decades, despite difficulties (political,
financial and social), dedicated Arab filmmakers have continued to turn out
fine films that have been an antidote to the perennially dispiriting news
coming out of the former hotbeds of the Arab Spring and their neighbours.
Much of this output has required
considerable self-reliance. If nothing else, the recent nominations ought to
inspire more financial assistance from local investors and film institutions,
the establishment of a more reliable distribution system, less threat of
censorship, and wider viewership among Arabs who remain entranced by Hollywood
blockbusters and formulaic Egyptian fare.
Two decades ago, most Arab Middle Eastern
filmmakers came from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. But now there are directors also
working in Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar and even Saudi Arabia.
Films from Algeria, one of several Arab
countries in the Maghreb with a strong cinema, have been nominated a few times
to the best foreign language category at the Oscars since the 1960s (and one of
them, “Z,” won in 1970). But only recently have Arab films from the Middle East
received such recognition. In 2016, “Theeb,” from Jordan — a country with a
nascent film community — was nominated for best foreign language film.
Competing previously in that Oscar category were two films by Hany Abu-Assad,
one of several Palestinian directors who have taken up film in the past two
Mr. Abu-Assad makes provocative but
entertaining films about Palestinian lives with romantic story lines running in
the background. His nominated 2005 film, “Paradise Now,” was about two would-be
suicide bombers; 2014’s Oscar nominee, “Omar,” addressed the pernicious
suspicion among Palestinians that one of their own is an Israeli spy. The first
was shot in Nablus, in between curfews and military attacks, and was financed
by European money; for the second, Mr. Abu-Assad’s Palestinian-American
producer, Waleed Zuaiter (who also stars in the film), worked to obtain funding
from independent Palestinian investors. “Wadjda,” by Haifaa al-Mansour, the
first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, was released in 2012 and
marked the first time Saudi Arabia had submitted a film to the Oscars. It
wasn’t nominated, but it was an important precursor to the country’s commitment
to grow its own film industry.
This year, the nomination of “Capernaum,” a
heart-wrenching realist drama centering around a feisty adolescent boy
consigned to a life of poverty and hardship, made Ms. Labaki the first Arab
female director ever to be shortlisted for the Oscars. But she had to largely
finance it on her own, mortgaging her house in Beirut.
Ms. Labaki received a small sum for her
film from the Qatar-based Doha Film Institute, one of the handfuls of
organizations in the Arab world offering financing to Arab filmmakers across
the Middle East. (The institute also helped fund “Of Fathers and Sons.”)
Her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, who doubles
as her producer and film composer, has said that in addition to mortgaging
their house they had to delay payments for their son’s school in order to fund
the film. (He told me that he was eventually able to secure funds from local investors.)
Filmmakers across the Middle East also
continue to face censorship or have to practice self-censorship. In 2017, the
Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri, whose fourth film, “The Insult,” was
nominated for best foreign language film last year, was briefly detained upon
his return to Lebanon to promote his film there and forced to answer
accusations of treason in front of a military court (he was cleared). His
earlier film, 2012’s “The Attack,” which was filmed partly in Israel, defying
Lebanese laws that prohibit travel to that country, had caused an outcry. It
was banned in Lebanon and in several Arab countries and he had to relocate to
In a way, things have improved since Mr.
Doueiri’s debut film, “West Beirut,” in 1998, when local funding was even more
scarce, and even since Ms. Labaki’s first film, “Caramel,” a charming,
light-hearted dramedy that premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Mr.
Doueiri’s “The Insult” was largely funded by private Lebanese investors.
Several Arab cinephiles are doing what they can to bolster Arab cinema and to
help build Arab audience appreciation for local films. According to Rasha
Salti, who selects Arab films for some of the leading international film
festivals, “The Oscar run this year may not mark an ‘apotheosis’ per se, but
rather an affirmation of the maturity of Arab cinema.”
Ms. Labaki, Mr. Doueiri, Mr. Abu-Assad, and
Naji Abu Nowar, the director of “Theeb,” are but a few of the Arab filmmakers
whose work reflects the contemporary Middle East, with themes that are as
global as they are local.
“Capernaum,” which earned the director a
15-minute standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes last year, was beaten
out by Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” at the Oscars. Like the Cuarón film, “Capernaum”
addresses the plight of female labourers. After Zain, the sharp-witted young
protagonist (who in real life was a Syrian refugee in Lebanon but who, with Ms
Labaki’s help, has since been relocated with his family to Europe), runs away
from home, he befriends Rahil, an Ethiopian migrant worker and mother of a baby
boy. Intense and deeply moving, “Capernaum” is cinema at its most vital and its
Quality films that address overlooked
issues can be successful when given the chance to be seen widely. With better
financial support and fewer restraints, Arab films from the Middle East could
very well be nominated for Oscars every year. And who knows — maybe soon one
will actually win.
Nana Asfour is an editor in The New York
Times Opinion section.