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Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Nahed Nasr sums up the Arab contribution to the 77th Cannes Festival.

Arab in Cannes


Arab cinema at the 77th Cannes Festival (14-25 May) reflects many purposeful statements and pleasant surprises that defy challenges.

Eight Arab films are taking part in Cannes this year, including the first ever Saudi film to have the privilege, Norah by Tawfik Alzaidi, as well as the debut feature of the Somali filmmaker Mo Harawi, The Village Next to Paradise, both in the Un Certain Regard competition. Two Egyptian female directors, Hala Elkoussy and Nada Riyadh, are contributing East of Noon to the Directors’ Fortnight and The Brink of Dreams (co-directed by Ayman El Amir) to La Semaine de la Critique, respectively. Everybody Loves Touda by the prominent Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch is in the Cannes Premiere section. Both Across the Sea by the French-Moroccan Saïd Hamich Benlarbi and Animale by the French-Algerian Emma Benestan are in the Special Screening section of La Semaine de la Critique. To a Land Unknown by the Palestinian Mahdi Fleifel is in the Directors’ Fortnight section.

The Brink of Dreams is a coming-of-age portrait of a group of Coptic girls in a conservative village in the south of Egypt, who go through a journey to challenge the traditional constraints forced upon them by forming an all-female street theatre troupe.

The film is Riyadh and El Amir’s second entry into Cannes after their short The Trap (2019), directed by Riyadh and produced by El Amir, whicih was in the official selection of the same section. It is also the second feature documentary they co-directed after And Happily Ever After premiered at IDFA in 2016.

In addition to directing, writing and producing their films, the two artists are an active duo in the Egyptian independent film scene. They co-founded Felucca Films production house aiming at helping independent filmmakers “explore and shape their personal voices and produce unique and original fiction and documentary films through an array of capacity building programs”.

Among the 21 films selected for this year’s lineup at Cannes’s Directors’ Fortnight, East Of Noon, Hala Elkoussy’s second feature, is one of eight films directed or co-directed by women. Starring Ahmed Kamal, Menha Batraoui, and Omar Rozik, with cinematography by Abdelsalam Moussa (also a co-producer), the black-and-white film is a fable about musician Abdo, who rebels against his elders, seeking freedom through his art in a confined world outside time.

Elkoussy’s debut feature Cactus Flower (2017) premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and won the 2017 Muhr Award for Best Actress at the Dubai International Film Festival. Her filmography includes a number of shorts, all of which are marked by her unique aesthetic: On Rooftops and Other Points of View (2005), From Rome to Rome (2006), White Bra (2006), We’re by the Sea Now (2006), Mount of Forgetfulness (2010), and In Search of a City (2012). Elkoussy is also a visual artist who started working as a freelance photographer and completed an MA in Image and Communication at Goldsmiths College, University of London. In 2004, she co-founded the Contemporary Image Collective (CiC), an independent artist initiative dedicated to photography and video, based in Cairo.  Elkoussy’s artworks have been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, New York, Geneva and Cairo.  

In the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight section, there is also To a Land Unknown by Mahdi Fleifel. The film follows the journey of a Palestinian refugee living on the fringes of society in Athens who, having been ripped off by a smuggler, sets out to seek revenge. Often examining themes of social injustice, Fleifel’s films convey the struggles of Palestinians under occupation. Fleifel’s critically acclaimed debut feature, A World Not Ours (2012), premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and received over 30 awards, including the Berlinale Peace Prize. In 2016 Fleifel won a Silver Bear for A Man Returned which was also nominated for the European Film Awards in the same year. His follow up, A Drowning Man (2017), was selected in the Official Competition at Cannes and later nominated for a BAFTA. I Signed the Petition won Best Documentary Short at IDFA and was nominated for the 2018 European Film Awards. 3 LOGICAL EXITS premiered in the 2020 Tiger Shorts Competition at IFF Rotterdam.

Two pleasant surprises at the Un Certain Regard section are a Saudi and a Somali film. The Saudi filmmaker Tawfik Alzaidi’s debut feature, Norah, is the first Saudi film to be selected for Cannes. Alzaidi, a prominent figure in Saudi Arabia’s new cinematic scene, began directing in 2006. His short film Perfect Crime won Best Editing at the Jeddah Film Festival in 2007, and The Silence won the Gulf Short Film Award at the Muscat International Film Festival in 2009.

Norah follows the story of Nader, a teacher who once dreamed of becoming an artist. Nader moves to a rural village, hoping to start afresh and leave his artistic ambitions behind. In the village, he meets Norah, a young woman facing an arranged marriage and seeking a way to express herself. Starring Yaqoub Alfarhan as Nader and Maria Bahrawi Alfarhan as Norah, the film is set in 1996. Alfarhan, known for his role in the TV series Rashash, and many other films by emerging Saudi filmmakers, embodies Nader’s struggle to reconcile his artistic aspirations with societal expectations. The film was the first to be shot entirely in Saudi Arabia’s historic Al-Ula region. It premiered at the Red Sea Film Festival 2023 and won Al-Ula best film award. In the context of changes in Saudi society, Norah reflects Alzaidi’s journey as a filmmaker at a crossroads, and he describes it as a deeply personal project.

Mo Harawe’s debut feature, The Village Next to Paradise, on the other hand, is set in a remote Somali village and follows a newly assembled family as they navigate their different aspirations and the complexities of the world around them. It explores themes of love, trust and resilience as the family members pursue their life paths. Born in Mogadishu, Harawe discovered his passion for cinema through art school in Somalia. He began his filmmaking journey in 2009 in Austria, where he has developed his career. His feature film script for Mogadishu won the Dor Film award at the Diagonale Film Festival in 2016. Harawe won a prestigious scholarship from the Austrian Federal Ministry for the Arts in 2019 and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Visual Communication at the Art University in Kassel. Harawe’s previous works have garnered critical acclaim, with his short film Life on the Horn receiving a Special Mention at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2020. His latest short film, Will My Parents Come to See Me, won the Grand Prix at Clermont-Ferrand and the German Lola Award for Best Short Film in 2023.

The Village Next to Paradise is a highly anticipated project, having attracted international interest at its early development stages. It won the Atlas Post-Production Prize at the Marrakech International Film Festival and was selected at the Locarno Alliance 4 Development Platform, where it was awarded the Alphapanda Market Breakout Award in 2022. Mostafa El Kashef, an acclaimed Egyptian cinematographer, collaborated with Harawe on the film. El Kashef’s work has been recognised at various film festivals, and he has received awards for his cinematography. His debut feature, 19 B, by Ahmed Abdallah (2022), earned him the Best Artistic Contribution Award at the Cairo International Film Festival. El Kashef has also worked on numerous short films that have garnered acclaim at festivals worldwide. He collaborated with director Morad Mostafa on I Promise You Paradise (2023), which participated in Cannes’ Critics Week and won 38 awards worldwide.

Nabil Ayouch’s latest film, Everybody Loves Touda, in the Cannes Premiere section, is co-written by Maryam Touzani, and follows the story of a young poet and singer, known as a Shaeirat, who raises her deaf-mute son in a small Moroccan village. Hoping to provide a better future for her son, she moves to Casablanca, where she faces challenges and setbacks. Ayouch, a member of several prestigious film academies, including the Academy of Motion Pictures and the Arab Film Academy, has a rich history in filmmaking. His debut feature, Mektoub, represented Morocco at the Oscars in 1997, and Razzia won numerous awards and represented Morocco at the Oscars in 2017. Everybody Loves Touda is a film about resilience and the pursuit of dreams. It stars Nisrin Erradi, known for her role in Touzani’s Adam, which represented Morocco at the Oscars in 2020. Ayouch produced the film through his own company Ali n’Productions, in collaboration with several other production companies. In addition to his filmmaking career, Ayouch has produced several successful films, including Touzani’s The Blue Caftan (2022), which won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes and became the biggest Moroccan movie hit in recent history.

Across the Sea by Saïd Hamich Benlarbi will screen at La Semaine de la Critique in Cannes as a Special screening. The film portrays Nour, a 27-year-old who has immigrated illegally to Marseille and earns a living as a small-time dealer with his friends, living a non-traditional, celebratory life. His life takes a dramatic turn when he encounters Serge, an unpredictable and charismatic police officer, and Serge’s wife Noémie. Saïd Hamich Benlarbi, is a French-Moroccan screenwriter, director, and producer. He is a graduate of Femis and a recipient of the Lagardère Foundation award. Benlarbi has collaborated with acclaimed filmmakers such as Faouzi Bensaïdi, Philippe Faucon, Leyla Bouzid, Nabil Ayouch, Yasmine Benkiran, Camille Lugan, and Kamal Lazraq. His debut feature film, Return to Bollène, was nominated for the Louis-Delluc Award for First Feature in 2018. In 2022, his short film The Departure was selected by numerous international festivals, winning over 20 awards and earning a César Award nomination. Across the Sea is his second feature film.

Animale, directed by Emma Benestan, will close La Semaine de la Critique at Cannes as a Special Screening. The film is set in Camargue, France, where Nejma trains rigorously to win the local bullfighting competition. However, her aspirations take a dark turn when she is attacked after a celebration, leading to unsettling changes. As the community is terrorised by a rogue bull responsible for killing young men, Nejma confronts a perilous transformation.

Benestan, a French-Algerian director, screenwriter, and editor, is a La Fémis graduate known for her acclaimed short films, including Un monde sans bête (Clermont Ferrand 2018), Goût bacon (shortlisted for the French Academy Awards), and Belle Gueule (winner of the CNC quality award). In her debut feature film, Fragile, Benestan offers a joyfully feminist take on contemporary masculinity, subverting traditional comedy codes. Benestan has also worked as an editor on notable films like Mektoub my love by Abdellatif Kechiche (Venice 2017) and has been involved in various projects as a screenwriter, including The Right Words, which premiered in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2021. Released in 2021, Fragile received critical acclaim for its fresh perspective. Fragile has garnered three wins and 37 nominations, solidifying Benestan’s reputation as a rising talent in the film industry.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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