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Cannes: Arab Filmmakers Thrive Despite Regional Upheavals

Arab cinema is gaining greater international traction amid constant flux in the Middle-East film industry.

With two works competing for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival — Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” and Egyptian-Austrian first-time filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky’s “Yomeddine” — plus three more pics sprinkled throughout other sections, the Arab contingent at Cannes has achieved representation on a scale rarely seen before. The rise of cinematic artists in the Middle East stems from a multi-cultural mindset and a conscious drive to transcend geographical borders while remaining rooted locally.

Shawky, whose “Yomeddine” is a road movie about a man raised in a leper colony who embarks on a journey across Egypt to try and reconnect with his family, is an alumnus of NYU’s graduate film program. This passion project was produced by American-Egyptian producer Dina Emam, who is one of Variety’s 10 Producers to Watch, and supported by the Tribeca Film Institute, among other organizations. Prominent Egyptian independent producer Mohamed Hefzy came on board after seeing a rough cut at the new El Gouna festival’s Cinegouna Platform, where it won the works-in-progress nod.

The pic, which draws on stories the director heard while filming a documentary in Egypt’s Abu Zaabal leper colony, marks the first film with a protagonist suffering from leprosy who gets a chance “to be defined by his humanity, not his disease,” according to his directors’ statement. Making the Cannes competition cut with a first work is a remarkable achievement not just for Shawky, but for independent Egyptian cinema as a whole, coming after Mohammed Diab’s “Clash” opened Un Certain Regard in 2016.

“Capernaum,” a political fable set in contemporary Lebanon, marks the third Cannes for Labaki after “Where Do We Go Now?” and “Caramel,” but the first time in competition for the director and actor, known for masterfully mixing politics and comedy, who is among the Arab world’s biggest box office draws.

The power of women in Arab cinema continues to grow as films from the region break new ground.

Tunisian producer Dora Bouchoucha, the producer of “Hedi” helmer Mohamed Ben Attia’s Directors’ Fortnight film “Dear Son,” about a Tunisian father coming to terms with his son joining ISIS, will be at Cannes as co-producer of the Tunisia Factory showcase of shorts from the country now considered a cinematic hotbed. Though very different in narrative and visual approaches, these shorts have a common thread, which is “the presence and strength of Tunisian women today,” she says.

In Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon, women make up about a quarter of all new directors, and their works focus largely on aspects of women’s lives in the Arab world, according to a study commissioned by the Doha Film Institute. The Institute is among the backers of Un Certain Regard player “Sofia,” the first film from Belgium-based Moroccan helmer Meryem Benm’Barek. The Casablanca-set “Sofia” focuses on a young woman in a traditional family who, while having dinner with her siblings, suddenly discovers she is about to give birth.

Also in Un Certain Regard is Paris-based Syrian director Gaya Jiji’s long-gestating debut, “My Favorite Fabric,” about a young woman’s voyage of self-discovery in a Damascus brothel on the eve of Syria’s civil war. The director has cited Luis Bunuel’s classic “Belle de Jour” as inspiration. The film’s complex co-production structure involving France, Ireland, Germany and Turkey, where it was shot, indicates how Arab directors are becoming savvier in their quest to find financing.

Going forward, it’s clear that the Arab indie film industry needs to continue honing its international networking skills, especially given the region’s volatility.

In April, the Dubai Intl. Film Festival suddenly announced it had canceled its upcoming edition and announced a “new strategy,” signaling that the event as attendees knew it — during its 14-year rise to become the top film Arab cinema springboard in the Middle East — is over.

“It’s a huge loss for the Arab film industry,” says Hefzy, who in March was appointed president of the Cairo Film Festival that he is relaunching with a strong market component. “People might say this is good for Cairo, but I disagree.”

Until recently, DIFF had managed to project an aura of stability in the face of closures in recent years of the Abu Dhabi and Doha Tribeca fests. In 2017, the Abu Dhabi programming team partly resurfaced at the helm of Egypt’s ambitious new El Gouna event, which launched successfully, despite some chaos.

Now the big novelty is Saudi Arabia which, after lifting a 35-year religion-related ban on cinemas last December, will launch its first national film pavilion at Cannes and could move in to fill the gap. With a movie-starved population of more than 30 million, roughly two-thirds of whom are under 35, Saudi certainly reps a big opportunity.

Arab Titles at Cannes:

Capernaum

Director: Nadine Labaki

Producer: Les Films des Tournelles

Key cast: Zain Alrafeea, Yordanos Shifera

Logline: A political fable set in contemporary Lebanon.

Sales company: Wild Bunch

Dear Son

Director: Mohamed Ben Attia

Producers: Nomadis Images, Les Films du Fleuve

Logline: A Tunisian father comes to terms with his son joining ISIS.

Key cast: Zakaria Ben Ayyed, Imen Cherif

Sales company: Luxbox

My Favorite Fabric

Director: Gaya Jiji

Producers: Gloria Films Production, Katuh Studio, Les Films del la Capitaine, Dublin Films, Liman Film

Logline: A young Syrian woman’s voyage of self-discovery in a Damascus brothel.

Key cast: Manal Issa

Sales company: Urban Distribution Intl.

Sofia

Director: Meryem Benm’Barek

Producers: Curiosa Films, Doha Film Institute

Logline: A young woman, while having dinner with her traditional family in Casablanca, suddenly discovers she is about to give birth.

Key cast: Sara Elmhamdi Elalaoui, Sarah Perles

Sales company: Be for Films

Yomeddine 

Director: Abu Bakr Shawky

Producers: Desert Highway Pictures, Film Clinic

Logline: Road movie about a man raised in a leper colony who embarks on a journey across Egypt to reconnect with his family.

Key cast: Rady Gamal, Ahmed Abdelhafiz

Sales company: Wild Bunch

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