'Yes, We Cannes!': Arab and North African cinema at Cannes 2019

Hayat Aljowaily from Cannes, Wednesday 29 May 2019

Cannes 2019 saw continued strong Arab and North African representation among filmmakers and producers, both through official sections and in numerous sideline events


After Arab and North African cinema made waves at Cannes 2018, the bar was set very high for filmmakers and industry professionals this year. However, they took up the challenge and came back stronger than ever. Between film screenings, side events and award ceremonies, the Riviera was bustling amid the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Here are the achievements of Arab and North African cinema at Cannes this year:

After the successes of A B Shawky and Dina Emam, and Nadine Labaki, in last year’s selection, Arab and North African filmmakers returned to the Palais des Festivals this year.

Included was a winning Arab film in the main competition, Palestinian writer/director/actor Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven, which touches on themes such as belonging and identity, as the protagonist wanders from Paris to New York while searching for a place to call home.

It Must Be Heaven
(Photo: fragment of artwork at the poster of film It Must Be Heaven)

After the film premiered 24 May in the Grand Theatre Lumiere, the audience gave director Suleiman a standing ovation that lasted over 15 minutes, to the awe and surprise of the entire cast and crew. During the closing ceremony, the film was awarded the Mention Speciale by Jury president Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Also nominated in the main competition was Franco-Tunisian actor/director Abdellatif Kechiche’s, Mektoub, my love: Intermezzo, the sequel to Mektoub, my love: Canto Uno which premiered at the Venice film Festival in 2017. The film is an adaption of a novel by François Bégaudeau, and follows Amin’s adventures in the beach town of Sete.

However, having received dismal reviews after its screening, many assume the film will be re-edited before its commercial release.

Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo
(Photo: still from Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo)

Beyond the main competition, many Arab and North African films were screened in the different programmes and theatres at Cannes 2019.

Adam, by Maryam Touzani, was screened as a part of the "Un Certain Regard" section, where Lebanese director Nadine Labaki served as Jury president this year.

The film tells the story of Abla, an older woman running a bakery from her home in Casablanca, whose life changes forever when Samia, a young pregnant woman, knocks at her door. The film was produced by renowned Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch.

(Photo: still from film Adam)

The Trap (Fakh) by director Nada Riyadh, an Egyptian writer-director, was screened through the "Semaine de la Critique" section. The short film recounts the journey of a young unmarried couple who decide to run away. Their power dynamic is tested when the girl reveals she wants to end the relationship.

Another Arab short film screened at Cannes this year is Ambience, a film about a group of young adults attempting to record a song in a Palestinian refugee camp, by Palestinian director Wissam Al-Jafari. The film was screened through the Cinefondation programme, and was awarded joint third prize in that section.

In the "Quinzaine des Realisateurs" (or the Director’s Fortnight) section, an independent selection historically made by the French Directors’ Guild, Tunisian director Alaeddine Slim’s film Tlamess was screened 22 May.

Finally, at the American Pavilion, the short-film Jumper by Egyptian-American filmmakers Ayman Samman and Rasha Mohamed was screened during a showcase.

(Photo: still from film Jumper)

On the non-fiction side, the documentary For Sama, by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts was awarded the Oeil d’Or award. The film explores the female experience of war, through five years of the life of Waad amid the Syrian uprisings, as she falls in love, gets married, and gives birth to her daughter, Sama.

Other Arab and North African films at Cannes included Algerian films Papicha and The Miracle of the Unknown Saint.

However, Arab and North African cinema was present at Cannes this year even beyond the screening rooms.

For Samaby
(Photo: fragment of the poster for the film For Samaby)

As always, the festival’s international village welcomed national and regional film institutions from around the world. Countries such as Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco held pavilions where they hosted various events, shared projects in development in their respective countries, and promoted their different initiatives, including programmes such as Rawi and the MedFilm Factory.

Concurrently, the Arab Cinema Centre held a stand in the Marche du Film to promote its partners and foster collaboration between filmmakers both within and from outside the region.

The Palestinian delegation, which celebrated their second year holding a pavilion, participated in many events in European pavilions, such as the Swedish-Norwegian pavilion, encouraging collaboration and co-productions.

Meanwhile, the European Film Promotion hosted a case study of Yomeddine (2018) attended by director Abu Bakr Shawky and producers Dina Emam and Mohamed Hefzy to analyse the successes of Euro-Arab co-productions.

(Photo: still from film Yomeddine)

At the Semaine du Cinema Positif (Week for Positive Cinema) panels event, hosted at the French National Centre for Cinema, Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch spoke about the power of cinema as a force for social change.

“If cinema weren’t so scary due to its potential for social change, it wouldn’t be forbidden. Censoring a film only makes it more popular, especially in an era where films travel and cross borders,” he explained.

North African and Arab filmmakers also met on the sidelines of the festival both to honour projects from the last year, support upcoming projects, and to blow off some steam.

At the Plage du Goeland, the Arab Cinema Centre invited prominent figures from the film and media industry in the region for its third annual Critics Awards ceremony. Amongst the attendees, and winners, were Abu Bakr Shawky and Dina Emam of Yomeddine.

Cinema positif

Cinephilia Productions, an incubator and film production company based in New York and dedicated to the development of filmmakers from the Middle East and Africa, organised their annual three-day #BoundCannes programme, which included different events that aimed to facilitate the possibility for co-productions for the programme’s fellows. Franco-Algerian-Palestinian director Lina Soualem was awarded the Cinephilia Bound Cannes Award of $5,000 to help produce her documentary feature Their Algeria.

After a hard day’s work, many of Arab and North African filmmakers met at various social events, including the boat party hosted annually by the team of El-Gouna Film Festival, the 100-year celebration of Empire entertainment, and the after-party of Elia Suleiman’s premiere.

Considering the intense activity of Arab and North African filmmakers this year, we can assume that 2019 will be a good year for cinema in the region, starting with the announcement of the Netflix-commissioned series Paranormal to be produced by Mohamed Hefzy and Amr Salama, based on the novels of the late author Ahmed Khaled Towfik.

Hayat Aljowaily is an Egyptian writer and producer. After having completed a BA in social sciences, international law and Middle Eastern studies at Sciences Po, Paris, in the south of France, she is now pursuing a BA in film and media studies at Columbia University.

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