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Arab Cinema Makes Its Mark at the Venice Festival

After its strong presence earlier this year in Berlin and Cannes, Arab cinema is represented at Venice by six titles hailing from Syria, Palestine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, which all reflect the region’s politics albeit in very different ways.

Though there are no Arab pics competing for the Golden Lion in Venice — unlike Cannes, where Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” and Egyptian-Austrian first-time filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky’s “Yomeddine” competed for the Palme d’Or — there are two Arab entries vying for prizes in the Lido’s Horizons section dedicated to more cutting-edge works: France-born Syrian first-time feature helmer Soudade Kaadan’s drama “The Day I Lost My Shadow,” and “Tel Aviv on Fire,” a high-concept comedy by Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi, who studied at Columbia U., plus four other films spread across other sections.

Set in war-torn Damascus in 2012, “The Day I Lost My Shadow” is about a young mother named Sana who takes a day off from work to search for a place to buy some cooking gas and descends into a civil conflict inferno. Kaadan previously portrayed Syrian strife in 2017 doc “Obscure,” which follows a traumatized 6-year-old Syrian boy living in a Lebanese refugee camp and trying to recover his sense of childhood.

Venice artistic chief Alberto Barbera calls it “an impressive depiction of one of the most tragic realities of the past decades.”

“Tel Aviv on Fire,” which is Zoabi’s second feature, revolves a 30-year-old Palestinian named Salam who lives in Jerusalem and works on a hugely popular fictional TV soap called “Tel Aviv on Fire,” about an illicit love affair between a Palestinian female spy and an Israeli general in 1967. Salam must pass through the Israeli checkpoints daily to reach the TV studios. One day the checkpoint chief starts asks him to change the show’s storyline in order to please his wife, who is a huge fan of the show.

Zoabi made his feature debut in 2010 with another comedy, “Man Without a Cell Phone,” and has since directed TV movie “Under the Same Sun,” which has a finale set in a near future where peace between Israel and Palestine has been made.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict will also be on the screen in Venice’s independently run Giornate Degli Autori (aka Venice Days) with “Screwdriver,” a psychological thriller by Bassam Jarbawi, who, like Zoabi, is also a Columbia U. alum. “Screwdriver” is about the struggle of a former Palestinian basketball champ to assimilate into society after 15 years in solitary confinement in an Israeli prison.

Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s female empowerment-themed “The Wedding Singer’s Daughter” is in the Days as part of the Prada-commissioned Miu Miu Women’s Tales, a series of short films directed by women.

Arab cinema programmer Intishal Al Timimi, who heads Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival, points out that 2018 is turning into a great year for Arab cinema on the festival circuit and notes that “in recent years 70% of the winners by Arab directors at international film festivals are first or second features,” which “bodes well for the future of Arab cinema.”

Syria, once a cinematic powerhouse but now rarely represented in festivals due to the ongoing conflict there, has another work launching from the Lido besides “Shadow”: the civil war doc “Still Recording,” which screens in Critics’ Week and is directed by Ghiath Ayoub and Saeed Al Batal. It follows art students Saeed and Milad, who decide to leave Damascus and go to Douma, a suburb under rebel control, where they launch a graffiti art project The directing duo shot more than 500 hours of footage over four years spent in the besieged city.

This year’s Critics’ Week closer is Tunisian chiller “Dachra” by first-timer Abdelhamid Bouchnak, who studied filmmaking at the University of Montreal. It marks a rare case of an Arab helmer venturing into the horror genre.

The plot turns on a female journalism student named Yasmin and her two male buddies as they set out to solve the mystery of a woman found mutilated 25 years ago, now imprisoned in an asylum and suspected of witchcraft. They stumble into the archaic and ominous world of Dachra, an isolated compound. The horror pic with a political subtext “tackles the conflict between tradition and modernity [in Tunisia] through the hope for a revolution that is not yet accomplished,” says Critics’ Week topper Giona Nazzaro.

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