The international spotlight on Arab cinema…

Thu Feb 27,2014


Alex Ritman

Although the time difference might leave you looking like an extra for the Walking Dead for the next day, it’s likely there’ll be more than just a few people across the Middle East staying up way past their bedtimes this Sunday to watch the Oscars. (And if you’re reading this on Monday, apologies for the Walking Dead reference, you look lovely).

But it’s not just the thought of tearing apart Ellen DeGeneres’ hosting skills piece by piece or the chance to squirm awkwardly at the undoubtedly plank-like ‘comedy’ routines played out by the various A-list presenters that will be keeping our tired eyes glued to the screen. It’s that the Middle East is no longer a bystander in the proceedings, but is becoming a very real presence in this annual celebration of film.

In 2012, Asghar Farhadi’s sublime A Separation famously brought the Foreign Language gong to Iran, and last year the wonderful 5 Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat narrowly missed out in the documentary section. But this year, there are even more reasons to cross your fingers and toes.

Now considered among the favourites in the documentary section, there’s The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s expertly crafted chronicling of Egypt’s very modern history and the country’s first Oscars nod.

And in the Foreign Language category, we have, of course, Hany Abu-Assad’s powerful Palestinian thriller Omar, recently spurred on by a commercial US release just days ago.
As numerous commentators have argued, Omar should well be up against another Middle East masterpiece.

The omission of Saudi Arabia’s first ever Academy Awards entry Wadjda from the final nominations list is a definite mark on this year’s proceedings. It’s little surprise Haifa Al Mansour’s drama has featured on countless lists of the best films of last year.

But what four letters unite these three titles? If we were to draw up a Venn diagram (and why not?), the central converged space would read ‘DIFF’. The Dubai International Film Festival has become, in its relatively youthful 10 years, the central platform from which this emergence of Middle Eastern film has sprung.

Having supported Omar with its Enjaaz post-production fund, the festival had the film as its opening gala and welcomed it with outstretched arms throughout the event.

The Square also featured in last year’s busy schedule, Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim won ‘Best Film’ Arab Documentary in the Muhr Arab Documentary category and joining Omar in picking up an award.

The year before, it was Wadjda – another DIFF supported film – that reaped the glory in Dubai. And if you wind the clock back to 2005, the second festival opened with Paradise Now, Hany Abu-Assad’s last Palestinian feature and the film that saw his first Oscar nomination.

Even if Omar or The Square don’t walk home with golden statuettes on Sunday (although let’s not even consider such a possibility!), Dubai’s entanglement with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, headquartered over 8,000 kilometres away, is only set to increase. At last year’s DIFF, it was announced that the festival had become the first from the Middle East qualified to have its winners in the Muhr Arab and Muhr Asia/Africa shorts competitions now eligible for contention, starting from next year, underlining its growing status as the hub for regional film.

As we speak, there are no doubt many more Omars, Wadjdas and The Squares lying in scripts, being played out in front of the camera or being pieced together in editing suites. And hopefully, we’ll get to see them first at DIFF before they go on to greater international glory. It looks like we’re not going to run out of excuses to stay up stupidly late watching the Oscars anytime soon. Bring on the sugary snacks and coffee!

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