For the past couple of years, Arab cinema has been making waves at the Cannes Film Festival with many Arab filmmakers making a mark on the famed Promenade de la Croisette (Boulevard de la Croisette).
From Yommedine’s participation in the official selection in 2018 to Nadine Labaki’s jury member position in 2019, Arab films and filmmakers have increasingly gained visibility at the festival and its auxiliary market and events.
From the work of the Arab Cinema Centre to the pavilions of various North African and Southwest Asian countries to the screenings of Arab films both in and out of competition, the Cannes Film Festival has been providing an important platform for filmmakers from the region to share their stories with the rest of the world.
This year, instead of gathering by the Croisette, or in the Salle Auditorium Louis Lumiere, filmmakers from the region and beyond, for the most part, are isolated in their homes. The COVID-19 crisis has had tragic effects on all aspects of society, and this did not spare the film industry. Around the world, many film professionals in all sectors of the industry have lost their jobs and have had to reimagine ways of storytelling that would not put them and their teams at risk.
The Cannes Film Festival was not exempt from this. After delaying the festival from May to July, the festival’s organisers eventually announced that the physical festival would not take place this year. Instead, they opted for a “Cannes 2020 Label” that would be given to selected films.
This label entitles the selected films to year-round support from Cannes while they apply to other film festivals (such as TIFF, San Sebastian, or Venice). The label is also anticipated to help draw audiences to selected films once they are released in theatres, or digitally.
On 3 June, Thierry Fremaux, the festival’s general delegate, and Pierre Lescure, the festival’s president, finally announced the selected films. Instead of the usual categories, In Competition, Un Certain Regard, Out of Competition, Special Screenings, and beyond, this year all films are considered part of the official selection. For once, this gives all films an equal footing and allows rising filmmakers to have their work recognised alongside some of their idols.
(Photo: Still from the televised announcement of the Official Selection with Thierry Frémaux and Pierre Lescure.)
Let us have a look at the North African and Southwest Asian films that have been selected and that have generated talk this year. As they have not yet been screened, and thus reviewed, we all look forward to eventually watching them and hearing their creators speak about them, in person or virtually.
First on the list is DNA by Maiwenn, a French and Algerian filmmaker of Vietnamese origin. She began her career in the film industry as an actress, and transitioned to writing and directing in 2006 with her film Pardonnez-Moi.
A regular at international and French film festivals, Maiwenn returns to Cannes with her film DNA, which tells the story of a young woman who develops close ties with her Algerian grandfather who protected her from toxic family life when she was younger. When he dies, she comes face to face with a deep identity crisis, while tensions in her family begin to resurface.
Still from DNA
Another Cannes returnee, Danielle Arbid is one of the selected directors this year.
Arbid is a Beirut-born filmmaker who moved to France to study Comparative Literature at La Sorbonne Nouvelle.
Five years after the release of her drama film Parisienne, she returns to the (virtual) red carpet with Passion Simple, a convoluted love story. It follows a man and a woman who meet in the Paris suburbs for several months, tracing the evolution of their love. No specific explanation is given for the origin of the encounter.
The benefit of this year’s single ‘Official Selection’ category is the fact that it has allowed rising filmmakers to receive accolades they weren’t expecting. One of them is Egyptian filmmaker Ayten Amin, a filmmaker from Alexandria.
Amin began her feature film career with Tahrir 2011, a documentary about the Revolution – a film on which she collaborated with Amr Salama and Tamer Ezzat.
This year, her newest feature, Souad, has made it to Cannes.
Souad tells the story of a 19-year-old girl who lives with her conservative family in the city of Zagazig. After Souad commits suicide, her sister, Rabab, decides to look for answers. This leads her to Alexandria, where Ahmed, a central figure in Souad’s virtual life, lives.
When announcing the film’s selection, Fremaux noted: “The film is about Egyptian youth. Here, cinema allows us to enter into homes, to see how young women live... It’s a very well-made film.”
Still from Ayten Amin's Souad
Next comes Farid Bentoumi, a French and Algerian filmmaker. He began his career in the film industry as an actor, starring mainly in TV series. In 2015, he released his first feature, Good Luck Algeria, a comedy inspired by his brother’s journey to the Turino Winter Olympics.
Today, his drama Red Soil is one of the selected films for the Cannes label.
Red Soil follows the journey of Nour, a nurse hired by the company where her father has always worked. When she meets a journalist investigating the company’s waste management, both young women discover the many secrets of the company. Nour then has to choose between staying silent or speaking up, thus betraying her father.
Still from Red Soil
Finally, this year’s Cannes 2020 list of selected films is going to go down in history for including a large number of first features.
Of these, one is directed by Arab filmmaker Jimmy Keyrouz, who this year presents Broken Keys.
A Lebanese filmmaker, Keyrouz received a Master’s in Fine Arts in Writing and Directing from Columbia University in 2016. His short film Nocturne in Black was very well-received and even went so far as winning him the Gold Medal at the Student Academy Awards.
His first feature, Broken Keys, which tells the story of a pianist who decides to leave his village where modern life and music are banned, now also makes him a Cannes veteran.
Jimmy Keyrouz (Photo: Jimmy Keyrouz website)
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