There is palpable new energy emanating from the Arab film world, largely due to a group of younger breakthrough directors finding their way to the fore, as attested by two Oscar-nominated titles this year, Jordanian Bedouin epic “Theeb” and Palestinian comic short “Ave Maria.”
This burst of creative forces is driven by daring producers tapping into new forms of financing and opportunities that are generating a wider range of pics amid a shift from a constraining Arab auteur mindset to genre movies and fresher, more audience-friendly fare.
Case in point is Naji Abu Nowar’s debut feature “Theeb,” the first Jordanian film to receive a nomination in Oscar’s foreign-language film category. Nowar, who studied screenwriting at the Sundance Institute Lab’s first Middle East program in Jordan, shot “Theeb” in Jordan’s stunning Wadi Rum valley. The film combines aspects of Bedouin tribal culture with riffs on Sergio Leone and John Ford Westerns.
“I want to make films that people
want to watch,” Nowar told Variety following “Theeb’s” 2014 splash at the Venice Film Festival. “I make Arab films that I want to watch.”
“Producers and filmmakers are
thinking ‘audience first’ now, whereas maybe before there was more of an arthouse bent,” says producer Paul Miller, a former head of financing at the Doha Film Institute.
He recently set up Abu Dhabi-based shingle Film Solutions in partnership with DFI development executive Stephen Strachan. Projects they are developing include Saudi director Shahad Ameen’s mermaid fantasy “Scales,” about a young girl finding a path to empowerment in a patriarchal society.
Both consider Majid Al Ansari’s “Zinzana” a gamechanger.
“I think it’s exciting for audiences to see a movie like that where people are speaking Arabic,” Strachan says. “It helps spread the word that this sort of cinema is available in the region.”
“Zinzana” is fully financed and produced by Abu Dhabi’s pioneering Image Nation and revolves around a psychopathic police officer who inflicts torture in a prison cell “somewhere in Arabia.”
Though this might conjure political connotations, there are none, says Al Ansari.
“There are a lot of movies from the Arab world that are about social and political issues,” he says. “I wanted mine to be just the opposite of that, almost a counterbalance to the movies that most other Arab filmmakers are doing.”
While Ansari was fortunate to be financially backed and creatively guided by Image Nation, Palestinian rookie director Basil Khalil had to struggle against all odds to make “Ave Maria,” his widely well-received 14-minute satirical short about five Palestinian cloistered nuns whose silent existence is disrupted by a family of Israeli settlers whose car crashes into their West Bank monastery.
Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad (“Omar”) recently ventured into more crowd-pleasing territory with his latest film, “The Idol,” the inspirational tale of Mohammad Assaf, who grew up in a refugee camp in Gaza and went on to win “Arab Idol” in 2013 and become a symbol of hope for Palestinians. “Idol” bowed in Toronto last year and has sold widely, bolstering Abu-Assad’s status as a beacon of Palestinian cinema.
Tunisian coming-of-age drama “As I Open My Eyes” is an impressive debut by Leyla Bouzid; and Egypt, which remains at the forefront of Arab film production, has promising genre pics in the pipeline, including “Zombie Goes Zombie,” the Arab world’s first zombie comedy. It will be directed by Ahmad Abdalla, who helmed the 2010 “Microphone,” about Egypt’s hip-hop scene.
“(‘Zombie Goes Zombie’) is more than it seems,” says producer Mohamed Hefzy. “There is something slightly political about a zombie movie coming out of the Middle East today, even though Ahmad is trying to hide that.”
“Zombie” is being produced by Fortress Film Clinic, a partnership between Hefzy’s Cairo-based Film Clinic and Dubai-based private equity fund Fortress Capital. It’s the first film venture of this type between an oil-rich fund in the UAE, where the film industry is in its infancy, and Egypt, which has a storied cinematic past.