Mideast Films Mighty in International Oscar Race

This year, with some mighty titles from the Maghreb evaluated alongside the rest of continental Africa, the competitive potential of the Middle East lineup handicapped here may seem a tad diminished. Nevertheless, the territory boasts a possible short-list contender in Palestinian helmer Elia Suleiman’s wry travelog “It Must Be Heaven,” which nabbed the international critics award at 2019 Cannes.

Back in 2003, Suleiman’s second feature, “Divine Intervention,” marked the first of 12 submissions made by Palestine over the years. During that time, the entries resulted in two nominations, both for films helmed by Hany Abu-Assad: “Paradise Now” (2005) and “Omar” (2013). Now, Suleiman, like Abu-Assad, is recognized as an elder statesman of Palestinian filmmaking as well as an accomplished auteur whose films continue to bear witness to the surreal and the absurd in Palestinian life at home and abroad. Although his work is better-known in Europe than in the U.S., “It Must Be Heaven” represents the type of arthouse fare likely to be recognized and put forward by the executive committee.

While the other four titles from the Middle East and those from Eurasia are not tipped as strong contenders, they still exemplify interesting festival fare. After fielding a nominee in the past two years (Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” and Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum”), Lebanon’s hopes for a hat trick ride on helmer-writer Oualid Mouaness’ “1982.” The drama stars Labaki and marries politics with coming-of-age action during one tense day at a private school on the outskirts of Beirut as Israel invades Lebanon.

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Iran, with two wins during the past decade thanks to Asghar Farhadi, musters a surprising entry with the poignant doc “Finding Farideh,” produced and directed by Azadeh Moussavi and Kourosh Ataee. The partially crowdfunded film follows Amsterdam resident Eline Farideh Koning, a charismatic transnational adoptee, who seeks to understand her ethnic identity and perhaps locate her biological family when she makes a first trip to Iran at the age of 39.

Saudi Arabia made its first foreign-language submission in 2013 with debutant helmer Haifaa al-Mansour’s coming-of-age story “Wadjda.” Al-Mansour also directs this year’s contempo social-issues drama “The Perfect Candidate.” Although not as tightly scripted or as charming as “Wadjda,” “Candidate” continues her previous theme of the challenges faced by women in the kingdom. The plot centers on a stubborn physician from the provinces who enters her local city council election with the vow to pave the dirt road leading to her hospital.

Israeli drama “Incitement,” directed by Yaron Zilberman, shows how the hate-filled words of politicians, cultural influencers and the right-wing media inspired the devoutly Orthodox law student Yigal Amir to kill Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, effectively derailing the Middle East peace process.

Kazakhstan, the largest of the former Soviet Republics, is the only Eurasian country to score a nomination in the foreign-language category, back with Sergi Bodrov’s “Mongol” in 2007. It can also boast two shortlisted films: Ermek Tursunov’s 2009 “Kelin” and Sergey Dvortsevoy’s “Ayka” from 2018. Alas, this year’s candidate, the historical epic “Kazakh Khanate. The Golden Throne” from Rustem Abdrashev plays as if randomly pieced together from the two miniseries he also directed. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan fields the fascinating, surreal drama “Aurora” from talented new helmer-writer Bekzat Pirmatov. Unfolding in a fractured narrative style, the surprising, absurdist action takes place at the Aurora, a Soviet-era sanitorium located on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul.

Meanwhile, neighboring Uzbekistan submits its first entry with the coming-of-age tale “Hot Bread” from director Umid Khamdamov. It centers on temperamental teen Zulfiya, who longs to leave the sleepy village home she shares with her grandmother to join her mother in the city.

Turkey has never received a foreign-language nomination, and this year’s entry, the slow-burn drama “Commitment — Asli,” from one-time Berlinale Golden Bear-winner Semih Kaplanoglu, is unlikely to change the situation.

Armenia’s submission, the omnibus drama “Lengthy Night,” from Edgar Baghdasaryan, uses three stories and a special stone to encompass a thousand years of Armenian history.

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