World Cinema: Around the world in 80 films

In our latest world cinema column, Nick continues his whistle stop tour of countries and their most notable films, this week taking in the Middle East…

Greetings, everyone! So, this week I’m returning to my Around the World in 80 films. I’ve visited Europe and Africa so far, so still have some way to go.

Choosing a film for each country is a difficult task, and one which is open for criticism. Do you go broad and choose a film which you believe represents the country as a whole? Or do you narrow the focus and choose a film which only represents a tiny minority? Both are open to accusations of subjectivity as opposed to objectivity, but, unfortunately, film criticism is probably the least objective medium in the world, especially when it’s on the web.

All I can do is pick films which I think will a) interest people, and b) I or someone I know have enjoyed. Theses choices won’t always be right, but hopefully, they’ll spark an interest in finding out just a little bit more about a country’s cinema. With that in mind, let’s go to our next region . the Middle East…


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In Oscar nominations at least, Israel is a real powerhouse of Middle Eastern filmmaking. Engaging with its early tradition of documentary filmmaking, my choice here is Waltz With Bashir. Charting the real-life experiences of director Ari Folman, it is an exploration of his memories of the 1982 Lebanon war, and more specifically, his repression of the atrocities committed. Powerfully told, it is an animation unlike any other.


Silent films were made here in the early 20th century, but due to the political situation it is only recently that an identifiable Palestinian voice has emerged in the film world. Often chronicling issues of identity and nationhood, the first major breakthrough film was Chronicles Of A Disappearance, by director-actor Elia Suleiman. It tells the story of Suleiman’s return to the West Bank after 12 years in New York, and its extremely loose documentary style of almost unconnected scenes is designed to reflect the Palestinian experience. It was feted in America by the critics and also at the Venice Film Festival.


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Another newcomer to the film scene, Jordan has only recently started producing films again. Its entry into the 2008 Oscars, Captain Abu Raed, was the first film produced in over 50 years. It tells the story of how an airport janitor has an incredible effect on one young boy’s life, despite an inauspicious start to their relationship. It offers an uncompromising view of domestic Jordanian life, and the ambitions that many harbour but few achieve.


Like many of its neighbours, Syria has a strong documentary tradition, with which it engages with domestic and international issues alike. Perhaps the most prolific and well known documentary filmmaker is Omar Amiralay, noted for his strong social and political criticism in his films. The Man With The Golden Soles is typical of this, tracing the life of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the delicate subtleties of power and politics. The film is made all the more poignant by the fact of al-Hariri’s assassination five years later, prompting Amiralay to call for Syria’s immediate withdrawal from Lebanon.


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Iraqi cinema has undergone many transformations, beginning with light romantic nonsense of the 1940s, to state controlled documentaries in the 60s and 70s. Saddam Hussein’s regime led to almost no cinema at all, but now there is resurgence with a new generation of filmmakers coming to the fore. Typical of this is director Abbas Fahdel and his 2008 picture Dawn Of The World. Exploring the recent conflicts of the Iraqi people, it charts the tortured love lives of villagers in an area which may be the real world location of the Garden of Eden. It’s absolutely allegorical a-go-go.


For my money, the most consistently exciting and innovative cinema of the Middle East, Iranian film is a faceted and complex subject. Seeming equally at home producing populist entertainment for the masses as it is creating internationally renowned art-house flicks, Iranian cinema is definitely worthy of an article of its own. However, when forced to choose, I’m selecting At Five In The Afternoon. Shot in Kabul not long after the NATO invasion, it tells the story of a young girl trying to gain an education in the wake of the Taliban’s defeat. Beautifully moving and evocative, with arresting imagery telling a thousand unsaid words, it’s one of Iranian New Wave’s finest achievements.

Saudi Arabia

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Another country with a tiny film industry, Saudi Arabia has a recent and fierce debate about the status of film and filmmaking within its borders. Fiercely conservative, the Ministry of Culture and Information nonetheless sanctioned the making of Cinema 500km, a documentary about a Saudi film fan’s quest to see a movie. With no cinemas in the country he is forced to travel the titular distance to Bahrain to fulfil his passion. Despite igniting a media debate, there are, ironically, no plans to show the film in Saudi Arabia.


Continuing the region’s trend for tiny, underdeveloped national cinema is Yemen, which has managed a grand total of two films. However, its debut film, A New Day In Old Sana’a, was a blinder and caused a whole load of controversy with the lead being stabbed and Islamic extremists storming the set. The plot concerns a man whose arranged marriage is pulled into disarray when he falls in love with a woman he mistakenly believes to be his intended.


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A film tradition has existed here since the 1930s, but obviously its main focus is on relations with Syria. Among several arresting portrayals of the country’s own identity is In The Battlefields, a look at the 1983 civil war and a close friendship between a 13-year-old girl and her aunt’s 18-year-old maid. The film screened at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and received notable reviews.


Another tiny industry, cinema in Kuwait is more renowned for its exhibition rather than its production. Theatre chain Cinemascope is a source of pride, with innovations such as e-ticketing making them amongst the leading chains in the Middle East. Film-wise, Bas ya Bahar was the first film produced there, back in 1971. Set in a Kuwait pre-oil boom, it tells the story of a troubled family in the fishing industry.

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