Nearly a decade after the Arab Spring swept across North Africa, the winds of change have also breathed new life into the region’s film industries, the fruits of which will be on display at this year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival.
Contemporary World Cinema lead programmer Kiva Reardon, who also curates the festival’s selections from North Africa, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, has noticed an uptick in diverse voices and stories from the region, with women in particular more widely represented. The result, she said, is a more “varied and interesting” portrait of life in North Africa today.
One example is “143 Sahara Street,” Algerian director Hassen Ferhani’s quiet documentary about an off-the-grid café in the Sahara Desert. Offering an intimate portrait of the proprietor and her guests — while training a wider lens on contemporary Algeria — the film both gives rise to “questions of modernization and the far reaches of capitalism” and provides a “nuanced” narrative “driven completely by a female character,” said Reardon.
Also from Algeria is “Terminal Sud,” by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, which explores a bloody conflict in an unnamed country and was inspired by Algeria’s civil war. “My English Cousin,” by documentarian Karim Sayad, travels from Algiers to Grimsby, England, to follow the path of the director’s cousin, who contemplates a return to his home country nearly two decades after emigrating to the U.K.
“On some level, [these films] are exploring this question of France’s colonization, but all three in very different ways,” said Reardon. “Together, they make a really exciting portrait of this exciting cinema that’s coming out of a country that was … not producing films in the same way that Egypt or Morocco or even Tunisia is.”
Traditional regional powerhouses are also represented in Toronto this year. “Certified Mail” is the feature directorial debut of Egypt’s Hisham Saqr, starring iconic actress Basma as a woman battling postpartum depression and mental health problems after her husband’s imprisonment. Reardon said the film bravely addresses issues “that no one wants to talk about anywhere, [while] framing the entire film around her and her struggles.”
First-time female directors will also grab the spotlight in Toronto. In “Adam,” Moroccan star Maryam Touzani steps behind the camera to tell the story of two vulnerable women from Casablanca whose lives converge and are ultimately transformed. Tunisian director Manele Labidi makes her debut with “Arab Blues,” about a woman who returns to Tunis after years abroad with the hopes of opening her own psychotherapy practice.
In “Noura’s Dream,” from debut director Hinde Boujemaa, Tunisian star Hind Sabri portrays the wife of an abusive husband whose dream of a new start with her lover is upended as she waits for a divorce. While it’s a film about “women’s rights and patriarchy in contemporary Tunisian society,” said Reardon, “Noura’s Dream” also confronts “cultural questions of toxic masculinity that aren’t unique to Tunisia or the Arab world.”
Despite wider setbacks since the Arab Spring, the representation of women in film is one area where North Africa has made great strides.