When actors John Cho and Issa Rae announced the Oscars 2020 nominees in a live-stream on Monday afternoon, many viewers were left gobsmacked with the limited scope of contenders. Criticism poured in around the lack of recognition toward female directors, an excessive focus on ‘Joker’ and several perceived snubs (including Lupita Nyong’o in ‘Us’, Jennifer Lopez in ‘Hustlers’, Awkwafina for ‘The Farewell’ and Greta Gerwig for ‘Little Women’).
But, in a step forward for Arab filmmakers, history was nonetheless made as four Arab films were nominated in one year. So, as you dust off your to-watch list before the Oscars (which air on February 10), keep an eye out for these regional titles…
Brotherhood (Live Action Short Film)
Director: Meryam Joobeur
Tunisian father Mohammed is disturbed when his eldest son, Malik, comes home after several years away married to a Syrian woman, who wears the full niqab; his father becomes suspicious that his son has been fighting for Daesh. The short film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018 and won the Best Canadian Short Film. Tunisian-Canadian filmmaker Meryam Joobeur helms the film, which stars Kais Ayari and Mohammed Grayaa.
For Sama (Documentary Feature)
Director: Waad Al Kateab
This harrowing documentary follows 26-year old filmmaker and narrator Waad Al Kateab over the course of five years, through love, marriage and the birth of her daughter, Sama, against the backdrop of the Aleppo uprising and the Syrian civil war. Waad and her husband Hamza face an impossible decision: flee to safety, or stay and help victims of war. ‘For Sama’ has already made history as the most-nominated feature documentary ever at the Bafta Awards, where it featured in four categories.
The Cave (Documentary Feature)
Director: Feras Fayyad
‘The Cave’ is Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad’s follow-up to his 2017 documentary ‘Last Men in Aleppo’, which was also nominated for an Oscar. ‘Last Men in Aleppo’ focused on the White Helmets, a volunteer organisation comprised of citizens who take on search-and-rescue missions in times of war, in the hope of saving lives. Meanwhile, ‘The Cave’ profiles Dr Amani Ballour in Ghouta, who operates a makeshift hospital inside a cave during the Syrian Civil War; here, a group of dedicated female doctors fend off systemic sexism while saving lives amid military strikes and bombings. The film won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered.
Nefta Football Club (Live Action Short Film)
Director: Yves Piat
Though French director Yves Piat helms this comedic short, Nefta Football Club is set in a Tunisian village (and filmed in Tozeur, Tunisia), where children play football in a wasteland. Two brothers — Abdullah and Mohammed — meet a donkey in the desert, wearing headphones, and carrying bags of white powder on his back. They decide to take the bags with them to the village.
Arab films at the Oscars: A history
Last year, Nadine Labaki’s ‘Capernaum’ was nominated for Best Foreign Film, marking a significant moment for Arab female directors. A year before that, Lebanese film ‘The Insult’ was nominated, while Jordanian movie ‘Theeb’ had a nomination back in 2016. There have been other nominations over the years — including ‘Paradise Now’ and ‘Omar’ by Palestinian filmmaker Hani Abu Assad — but the first and only Arab film to actually win an Oscar, for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’, was Algerian production ‘Z’ (though it didn’t focus on an Arab story) in 1970; incidentally, Z was also nominated for Best Picture that year, making history as the first film to be nominated in those two categories.