Among the Middle East’s 10 submissions, three of which are helmed by women, are several titles that are likely to be competitive in the foreign-language category. These include the Cannes jury prize-winner “Capernaum,” from Lebanon’s helmer-actress Nadine Labaki, and “The Cakemaker” from Israel’s Ofir Raul Grazier. While the lineup includes some films that premiered at major festivals such as Berlin, Venice and Cannes, nearly all of the regional entries, with the exception of the Yemeni title “10 Days Before the Wedding,” have screened in multiple smaller festivals and nabbed several awards.
Labaki’s third feature, “Capernaum,” is the story of an impoverished Beirut boy who launches a lawsuit against his parents for bringing him into the world. It has a lot going for it: It’s a heart-tugging social-issues drama with adorable non-pro child actors, and it plays like, er, a “Slumdog Beirut.” Moreover, the film, due out Stateside in December, has the muscle of boutique arthouse distributor Sony Pictures Classics behind it. Last year, Lebanon scored a nomination for Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult”; odds are that “Capernaum” will make it two in a row.
In certain ways, the tender, delicate drama “The Cakemaker” is an unusual submission from Israel. It views the country and Jewish society through the lens of an outsider thrice-over: a gay, Christian German who travels to Jerusalem to trace the life of his deceased male lover, a closeted married man. It’s a film about loneliness and yearning, filled with sensuous textures and mouth-watering edibles.
While “Capernaum” and “The Cakemaker” represent the region’s best bets for an Oscar nomination, there are a couple of dark- horse titles that might have an outside chance for the short list of nine. Among them is Iranian Vahid Jalilvand’s “No Date, No Signature,” a complex drama about a well-meaning medical examiner haunted by the death of a child. The film’s twists and turns may remind some viewers of the works of Iranian master (and two-time foreign-language Oscar winner) Asghar Farhadi. Meanwhile, “Beauty and the Dogs” from Tunisian helmer Kaouther Ben Hania, about a young woman raped by police officers, definitely speaks to the current #MeToo zeitgeist.
Although less competitive as Oscar fare, the remaining Middle Eastern titles certainly provide strong social issues commentary. Palestine’s entry, “Ghost Hunting” from Raed Andoni, which nabbed the documentary prize at the Berlinale, assembles a group of former Israeli prisoners to re-create the circumstances of their incarceration. Iraq’s “The Journey,” from Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji, explores the mind of a would-be suicide bomber. Morocco’s “Burnout,” from Nour-Eddine Lakhmari, looks at the seamy side of Casablanca society. And Egypt’s road movie, “Yomeddine,” from A.B. Shawky, follows a former leper as he crosses the country looking for long-lost relatives.
Love and death are near neighbors in Algeria’s “Until the End of Time,” from Yasmine Chouikh, in which an elderly gravedigger and a widow meet in a cemetery and develop feelings for one another. So are they too in “10 Days Before the Wedding,” Amr Gamal’s Aden-set drama about a couple struggling to tie the knot in the middle of Yemen’s civil war.