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Oscar Foreign-Language: Middle East Grows More Competitive

With submissions helmed by a former foreign-language Oscar winner (Iran’s Asghar Farhadi) and a two-time nominee (Palestine’s Hany Abu-Assad), Middle Eastern titles look to be more competitive than ever in the foreign-language film category. While the lineup includes some films that premiered at major events such as Sundance and Cannes, all the 11 regional entries have screened in multiple smaller festivals and have nabbed many awards. The list also includes the first-ever submission from Yemen, the stark, fact-based drama, “I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced,” from the country’s first female helmer, Khadija Al-Salami, who is the press and cultural attache at Yemen’s French Embassy.

Even discounting any alumni effect, the two strongest contenders are Farhadi’s “The Salesman” and Abu-Assad’s “The Idol.” “The Salesman” commands attention for shining a revealing light on the complexities and contradictions of contemporary Iranian society while taking on issues of gender, class, justice, and personal honor. Although not as audacious or fresh as Farhadi’s 2012 Oscar winner, “A Separation,” which “Salesman” resembles in many ways, the constantly evolving storyline takes advantage of situational suspense to ratchet up tension from scene to scene as new details emerge that change the tale’s moral perspective and viewers’ sympathies.

Will the third time be a charm for Abu-Assad, whose pics “Paradise Now” (2005) and “Omar” (2013), were both shortlisted? “The Idol” couldn’t be more different from those two serious dramas about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Both tear-jerker and crowd-pleaser, it hits “Slumdog Millionaire” buttons as it follows the true-life trajectory of spunky Mohamad Assaf from pint-sized Gaza wedding singer to “Arab Idol” winner.

While “The Salesman” and “The Idol” represent the region’s best bets for an Oscar nomination, there are a number of dark horse titles that could nab a spot on the shortlist of nine. Among them is Mohamed Diab’s harrowing sophomore feature “Clash.” The action takes place in July 2013, in the midst of riots pitting Egypt’s pro-military supporters against the then-ruling Muslim Brotherhood and unfolds almost entirely within the claustrophobic confines of a police van packed to bursting with detainees supporting opposite sides, including activists, journalists, and mere bystanders. This clever construct allows Diab to explore his country’s divided, post-revolution society in a non-judgmental way by highlighting the characters’ common humanity.

Israel has submitted films for the foreign-language Oscar since 1964, and since then 10 titles have been nominated, but none ultimately triumphed.

This year’s submission “Sand Storm,” helmed by feature debutant Elite Zexer, represents the country’s first entry that has nothing to do with Israel’s Jewish population. Powerfully shot and performed, the poignant story centers on a mother and daughter in a Bedouin village who are trapped by patriarchy and tradition.

Saudi Arabia’s second-ever submission, the independently financed “Barakah Meets Barakah” is a smart, charming, and bittersweet tale about the kingdom’s millennial generation and its take on the social and political restrictions that stand in the way of meeting and mingling with the opposite sex. It uses acerbic humor to provide an insightful look at a time and place where traditions and laws clash with the modern world of smartphones and social media. The relative lack of comedies in the foreign-language film category and the exoticism of a film from a country where public cinema-going barely exists could provide an extra edge for director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s scrappy debut.

Even more unique is Iraq’s great-looking “El Clásico,” a touching tale about dreaming big from Norway-based Kurdish helmer Halkawt Mustafa. It’s a road movie that follows two brothers who travel from their remote Kurdistan village to Madrid in order to present a pair of handmade shoes to Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Although less competitive as Oscar fare, the remaining Middle Eastern titles make for strong festival fodder as they provide social issues commentary or provocatively treat traumatic historical events. From Jordan, Mai Masri’s “3000 Nights” is a gripping drama of injustice centering on Palestinian political prisoners in Israel. Lebanon’s cynical, blackly comic thriller “Very Big Shot,” helmed by Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, follows three criminally inclined brothers as they progress from drug-dealing to movie producing to politics. “A Mile in My Shoes,” from Morocco’s Said Khallaf, examines the background of a Casablanca street criminal, while Algeria’s tense “The Well,” from longtime producer-turned-helmer Lotfi Bouchouchi, unfolds in a remote village during the Algerian war of independence.

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