Arabs on the Riviera

Nahed Nasr , Saturday 3 Jun 2023

A summing up of the Arab contribution to the Cannes Film Festival this year.

 Kaouther Ben Hania
Tunisian film director Kaouther Ben Hania (L) and Moroccan film director Asmae El Moudir poses with the L Oeil d Or award at the 76th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 26, 2023. AFP


The 76th Cannes Film Festival (16-27 May) was marked by a remarkable Arab presence in its various competitions and programmes. Arab films received prestigious awards, critical acclaim, and interest from prominent international film distributors.

The festival featured Sudanese and Jordanian cinema for the first time, through Goodbye Julia, a narrative feature by Mohamed Kordofani in the Official Selection of Un Certain Regard, which won the Freedom Prize, and Inshallah A Boy, a narrative feature by Amjad Al- Rasheed in the Parallel Selections of the International Critic’s Week, which won the Gan Foundation Award for Distribution, respectively

However, it is also remarkable that some of the prominent Arab films in this round are their directors’ feature debuts,  including Les Meutes, the narrative feature debut of the Moroccan director Kamal Lazraq, which won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard; The King of Algiers, the narrative feature debut of the Algerian director Elias Belkeddar, which was in the Official Selection of the Midnight Screenings programme; The Red Sea Makes Me Wanna Cry , the narrative feature debut of the Jordanian director Faris Alrjoob, which was in the Director’s Fortnight programme; and The Mother of All Lies, a documentary feature by the Moroccan director Asmae El Moudir, in the Official Selection of Un Certain Regard, which won the best director prize. This, in addition to sharing the L’Oeil d’Or, the top documentary prize, being shared by the veteran Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters. The prize, an important achievement for documentary cinema, automatically qualifies the piece for Oscar consideration.

Kaouther Ben Hania also won more  three awards for her Four Daughters: the Citizenship Award, the François Chalais Award, a special mention from the jury, and the Positive cinema award.

But Ben Hania and El Moudir weren’t the only Arab woman directors at Cannes this year. There was also The Nature of Love,  the third narrative feature of the Canadian-Tunisian director Monia Chokri which was in the Official Selection of Un Certain Regard, and Moon, narrative short by Moroccan director Zineb Wakrim, an official selection of the Cannes’  school film competition La Cinef, and winner of its third prize.

This, in addition to two feature films in the 2023 ACID Cannes programme organised by Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema; The Sea and Her Waves, a Lebanese narrative feature by Liana and Renaud, and Machtat, a Tunisian documentary feature by Sonia Ben Slama.

There were also three films by female directors of Arab descent: The Voice of Others, a short narrative by the French Tunisian director Fatima Kaci, which took part in La Cinef; Little Girl Blue, a docudrama feature by French-Moroccan director Mona Achache, in the Official Selection’s Special Screenings section; and Jeanne Du Barry, a narrative feature by French Algerian director Maïwenn, which opened the festival.

This year, two films by veteran directors, Arab or of Arab origin, also participated in Cannes: Firebrand, a narrative feature by the prominent Algerian Brazilian director  Karim Aïnouz, which was an official selection in competition; and Déserts, a narrative feature by the Moroccan director Faouzi Bensaïdi, which participated in the Director’s Fortnight programme.

From Egypt, the short film I promise you paradise by Murad Mustafa, which participated in the Semaine de la Critique competition, won two awards: the Valbonne audience Award, and the Rail d’Or Award. Also Egyptian director Jad Chahine’s short film The Call of the Brook was officially selected for the LA CINEF section for school films.

The topics dealt with by Arab directors and those of the Arab diaspora naturally varied, but some of them were particularly distinguished in style and in the novelty of their topics, which made them the focus of media and critical attention. Two documentaries shared the same the L’Oeil d’Or prize for the best documentary in Cannes: The Mother of All Lies, Asmaa Almoudir’s debut feature documentary, and Kaouther Ben Hania’s  Four Daughters.

In The Mother of All Lies, whose post-production team includes Egyptian producer Mark Lotfi, a Moroccan woman’s search for the truth is caught in a web of lies in her family history. As a daughter and filmmaker, Asmaa Almoudir fuses personal and national history to reflect on the 1981 Bread Riots, drawing out connections with present-day Morocco.

The film generated great interest, as the director was able to weave the personal history of her family into the collective narrative of a poignant historical event that formed part of Casablanca’s collective memory. But she also followed an authentic approach in tracing the untold memories of her family and her city.

In her film, Asmaa does not attempt to re-enact the past, but rather to reconstruct miniatures of the city that was, and of those who inhabited it many years before her own life started. Through confronting her family and neighbours with the ghost of that city as she created it in miniatures, memories flowed, lies were revealed, and hell broke loose with endless questions outweighing the answers, with a thin line dividing what people forced themselves to believe despite its falsity, and their feverish eagerness to reveal the truth, which possesses her as well.

Asmaa has only one picture from her childhood, which she doubts is real, just as the people of Casablanca have only one picture documenting what happened. Thus, the memory of the young woman overlaps with the memory of the city, so the only solution is to re-embody the place, even in the smallest possible size, so that huge questions and gigantic confrontations with the individual and collective self can flow out of their souls.

In her documentary Four Daughters, Kaouther Ben Hania adopts a style that wavers between fiction and documentary, hoping to find her own answers through the characters’ search for answers. In 2013 Kaouther made the interesting film Le Challat de Tunis, which was an attempt to debunk the bloated myth of the razor-blade man who was targeting girls. She has woven a tight script into a documentary form in which the boundaries between illusion and reality are blurred, just as they are in the story of the razor-blade man. In the end, Ben Hania knew from the beginning that it was a fictional  film that resembled the absurdity of reality.

But in her latest, Four daughters, Ben Hania reverses the situation. The film is about  Olfa, a Tunisian woman and the mother of four daughters. One day, her two older daughters disappear in the shadow of ISIS, across the border with Libya. The mother does not know how or way, nor does Ben Hania who, like Asmaa Almoudir, is less interested in reenacting the past in a documentary film than re-exploring the present moment with the weight of that past. To fill in the absence of the daughters, she invites professional actresses, including the prominent Tunisian star Hind Sabri, inventing a unique cinematic experience that will lift the veil on Olfa and her daughters’ life stories.

During the film’s journey, questions are not directed to the mother and her remaining daughters, to make a film based on a true story. Rather the mother and her daughters try to help professional actresses to play their own roles. They exchange roles and experiences, so that feelings and memories mix, and the story moves away from the framework of voyeurism from a distance on the lives of the mother and her daughters, to a human experience in which everyone is involved. Everything created through this experience is fresh, yet it is loaded with the weight of the past over the present moment. Everything you see on screen is the result of a live interaction happening during filming.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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