A still from Italian-Iraqi filmmaker Haider Rashid's feature film ‘Europa’. Image Credit: Supplied

Arab cinema has achieved new heights at the Cannes Film Festival. This year has seen the largest presence of Arab films at the most important film festival in the world; six films selected for the main three sections of the French festival. Leading them, of course, is the feature film ‘Casablanca Beats’ directed by Moroccan filmmaker and Cannes regular Nabil Ayouch, which is the first time ever for an Arabic film in this competition.

There are six films made by six Arab directors coming from five Arab countries, distributed equally in the three main programmes of the festival. There are also two other directors with an Arab connection: the great Franco Algerian filmmaker Tony Gatlif with ‘Tom Medina’ in the official selection, and the Brazilian-Algerian Karim Ainouz with his new film ‘Marinheiro das Montanhas’.

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US director and Jury President of the 74th Cannes Film Festival Spike Lee (C) arrives with Jury members (fromL) South Korean actor Song Kang-Ho, French actor Tahar Rahim, French-Canadian singer Mylene Farmer, US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, French actress and director Melanie Laurent, Austrian director Jessica Hausner and Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho for the opening ceremony and the screening of the film "Annette" at the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on July 6, 2021. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) Image Credit: AFP

Not only are there Arab films and directors in the festival but also jurors, such as the French-Algerian star Tahar Rahim who will be part of the international jury headed by Spike Lee.

It should be underlined that female filmmakers occupy a prominent position in this Arab cinema team; in fact two of the six films are made by women. Both of them are Tunisian: Hafsia Herzi, who presents the second feature film ‘The Good Mother’ in the Un Certain Regard selection, and her compatriot Leyla Bouzid (the great Tunisian master Nouri Bouzid’s daughter) whose film ‘Majnoun Farah’ (A Tale Of Love And Desire) will close the critics’ week selection programme.

A third woman, Tunisian as well, is the candidate for the 2021 Oscars. Kaouther Ben Hania has been appointed to head the jury who will award the Palm d’Or for best short films. Ben Hania will be joined by the young Egyptian director Sameh Alaa, who won the Palme d’Or with his ‘I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face’.

A Palm d’Or shines on Casablanca!

‘Casablanca Beats’ by Nabil Ayouch
‘Casablanca Beats’ by Nabil Ayouch Image Credit: IMDB

This edition marks the first Arab participation in the official competition of the Cannes with the film ‘Casablanca Beats’ by Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch, whose previous film ‘Ya Khil Allah’ was previously shown in the Un Certain Regard competition.

It should be noted that the presence of the Moroccan film ‘Casablanca Beats’ in the official competition is in it self a unique precedent, as it is an Arab film competing for the Palme d’Or.

The film follows a group of youngsters living in the Casablanca slum district of Sidi Moumen as they join a workshop encouraging them to express themselves through hip-hop music and dance.

Former rapper Anas takes a job at cultural centre in a working-class neighbourhood in Casablanca. Encouraged by their new teacher, his students will try to free themselves from the weight of restrictive traditions, in order to live their passions and express themselves through hip hop.

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The second film in the official programme, within the Un Certain Regard competition, is ‘The Kind Mother’ directed by Hafsia Herzi, the actress first discovered and launched by Abdellatif Kechiche in his ‘Cous Cous’.

The film deals with Nora, a cleaning lady in her 50s, looks after her small family in a housing estate in the northern part of Marseille. She is worried about her grandson Ellyes, who has been in prison for several months for robbery and is awaiting his trial with a mixture of hope and anxiety. Nora does everything she can to make this wait as painless as possible. This is Herzi’s second feature as a director after a huge success with ‘You Deserve A Lover’, at Cannes Critics Week 2019.

An Iraqi heart in Florence

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“A Florentine filmmaker with an Iraqi heart”: this is how the largest and most authoritative Italian press agency, ANSA, defined the Italian-Iraqi filmmaker Haider Rashid whose long feature film ‘Europa’ will be presented at the Directors’ Fortnights in the 74th edition of Cannes Film Festival, which has been inaugurated on Tuesday, July 6 and will last until July 17 with the awarding ceremony of the Palm d’Or and other prestigious prizes.

Italian-Iraqi filmmaker Haider Rashid. Image Credit: Supplied

That Iraqi heart of Haider Rashid is the same one that beats strong and terrified inside Kamal, the young 20-year-old Iraqi who, having fled from Iraq, and arrested by the Bulgarian border police on the border between Turkey and Bulgaria, finds himself lost in an endless forest and fraught with numerous dangers, on top of them The Migrants Hunters, the death squads made up of Bulgarian civilians who gave themselves, for ideological and xenophobic reasons, the task of preventing migrants to cross the borders of the Fortress Europe.

Rashid’s movie ‘Europa’, which competes in the Directors' Fortnight competition, follows the Iraqi young man Kamal in the three most tragic days of his life, Kamal has fled Iraq to try to enter ‘Fortress Europe’. At the Turkish-Bulgarian border, local mercenaries are ruthlessly hunting down migrants. Alone in the forest, Kamal has three days to escape.

Rashid’s movie ‘Europa’, which competes in the Directors' Fortnight competition, follows the Iraqi young man Kamal in the three most tragic days of his life. Image Credit: Supplied

Rashid is an Iraqi and Italian director born in 1985. He directed ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, ‘Silence: All Roads Lead To Music’, ‘It’s About To Rain’ and ‘Street Opera’, and the short film ‘The Deep and No Borders’, the first Italian virtual reality film. His films have won awards at the Venice Film Festival and Dubai festivals, as well as the Nastri d’Argento ceremony.

The Lebanese Ely Dagher’s first short film ‘Waves ‘98’ was awarded in 2015 with the short film Palme d’Or and short listed for the Oscar for Best Short Film.

‘The Sea Ahead’ talks about a young woman who walks out of the Beirut airport alone and makes her way back home to her parents’ house in the middle of the night. Having been abroad and out of touch for a while, Jana seems to be leaving a bad experience behind and taking refuge. Haunting pressures to fit back into the family dynamics as well as revealing details of her life abroad weigh heavy on her. Feeling cornered, her fears and anxieties resurface, leading her to reconnect and find solace in another part of her Beirut life that she had forsaken.

Born in 1985, Beirut-based Dagher graduated from Goldsmiths College in London. His work intertwines on different levels and focuses on the layering of narratives across film, painting and installation. Drawing from his upbringing in Lebanon, his work explores the possibilities created through the play between cultures, stories and fiction. It joggles between points of identification and visual structures, from surrealism, science fiction and the occult.

Egyptian film in Critics' week

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'Feathers' talks about a passive mother who dedicates her life to her husband and children. Image Credit: Supplied

The young Egyptian director Omar El Zohairy remains faithful to the reality of family life, with his ‘Feathers’. The film talks about a passive mother who dedicates her life to her husband and children. Stuck in daily, repetitive, mundane chores, she has made herself as little as she possibly could. When a magic trick goes wrong at her four-year-old son’s birthday party, an avalanche of coincidental absurdities befalls the family. The magician turns her husband, the authoritarian father, into a chicken. The mother is now forced to come to the fore and take care of the family while moving heaven and earth to bring her husband back. As she tries to survive, she goes through a rough and absurd transformation.

El Zohairy studied film directing at the High Institute of Cinema in Cairo and worked as an assistant director on feature films of Egypt’s most prominent directors, including Yousri Nasrallah. El Zohairy’s first short film, ‘Breathe Out’ (‘Zafir’), premiered at the 8th Dubai International Film Festival and won the Muhr Special Jury Prize for Short Films. His second short film, ‘The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometre 375’, was the first Egyptian film to be selected for the Cinéfondation competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. The film went on to win several awards around the world.

Romeo meets Juliette in Paris suburbs

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Leyla Bouzid’s film ‘Majnoun Farah’. Image Credit: Supplied

Leyla Bouzid’s film ‘Majnoun Farah’ narrates about Ahmed, 18, a French man of Algerian origin who grew up in the suburbs of Paris. At the university, he meets Farah, a young Tunisian girl who is full of energy and who has just arrived in Paris. While discovering a collection of sensual Arab literature he never imagined existed, Ahmed falls head over heels in love with Farah, and although literally overwhelmed with desire, he will try to resist it.

She was born in 1984 in Tunis, where she grew up. In 2003, she left for Paris to study French literature at the Sorbonne before studying filmmaking at La Femis. She directed her graduation film, ‘Shudders’, in 2011 and ‘Zakaria’ in 2013. In 2015, her first feature film, ‘As I Open My Eyes, was awarded at the Venice Film Festival before being selected by many international festivals. ‘Majnoun Farah’ (‘A Tale of Love and Desire’) is her second feature film.