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Entries in Middle Eastern Films (32)


HBO’s LGBT History: Be Like Others (2008)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we looked at Bernard and Doris, which gave us a chance to wax on about two underrated actors, Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes. This week, we look abroad as we pause to think about Tanaz Eshaghian’s documentary Be Like Others (also known as Transsexual in Iran). More...

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TIFF: Baba Joon, Dégradé, Much Loved

on the set of Baba JoonAmir files our last TIFF report on three films, one of them hoping for Oscar...

Baba Joon (Israel)
Israel’s Oscar submission is quite a unique experience: the lives of Iranian Jews who have left their homeland to live in Israel—and are consequently not allowed to re-enter Iran because of the two countries’ bitter relationship has never been portrayed on screen. In Yuval Delshad’s debut feature, the titular character and his clan—a son, his wife and their son—all live on a small turkey farm in rural Israel and live with very modest means. The tensions between multiple generations of the family, and the melancholia of living at once at home and away from home are the film’s central themes.

Baba Joon’s storytelling and the emotional beats are familiar. There is nothing in the strained father-son dynamics, troubled by decades of repression, that we haven’t previously seen on the big screen. The film’s abrupt but rather predictable ending lends it a saccharine flavour that might sit well with the Academy, but undermines the film. When the story’s resolution is presented so neatly with a gift wrap, very little is left for the audience to ponder. Still, this is a heartfelt film of genuinely well intentions, with a sizable novelty factor, whose fresh look at ethnic minorities in the Middle East is quietly delightful.

Dégradé (Palestine/France/Qatar)
This debut film from eccentrically named brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser, shows similar irreverence in depicting ethnic tensions with Israel. Part Almodovar-esque comedy of women on the verge of nervous breakdowns, part a thriller revolving a hostage situation, their film, which stars Hiam Abbas and Maisa Abd Elhadi, is based in a hair salon in Gaza, where the clientele hail from different social, religious and political backgrounds. As they wait their turns to be beautified, the salon becomes increasingly like a microcosm of Gaza’s society, and the world beyond the confines of the building is engulfed in violence.

Dégradé is an interesting look at life in the occupied territories because it broadens the conversation beyond the Israel-Palestine binary. In the film’s view, the community is rife with tensions and chasms, all exacerbated by the atrocious limitations of living in occupation. Yet, the image is much richer and layered than normally shown on screen, breaking the monolithic view of Palestinians in favour of a more complex perspective. That the film manages to convey these intricacies while remaining consistently entertaining is a significant accomplishment, and one that promises much more from the filmmaking duo.

Much Loved (Morocco/France)
The most daring film among the bunch comes from the more experienced hands of Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch. Ayouch surveys the night club scene in Marrakech, a world filled with sex, drugs and rampant decadence. Home to tourists from Saudi Arabia and Europe, the city’s nightlife is bustling and its sex industry is ever active, almost completely removed from the crisis-ridden country that surrounds it. Almost.  Following Noha (Loubna Abidar) and her entourage of less experienced escorts, Much Loved is as intimate a film as it is provocative.

Ayouch has had to field a lot of controversy, mostly due to the explicit displays of sex in his film; and while the murky release prospects of the film in the Arab world are understandable, it’s unfortunate if sex becomes the only talking point. This is the rare film that intertwines the lives of sex workers with socio-economic issues without becoming patronizing. Morocco’s complicated relationships with Europe and other Arab countries, and its tenuous political situation are subtly worked into the plot of the film. It’s intimate and superbly acted—mostly by amateur performers— and a film that's heartbreaking, humorous and evocative in equal measure. In a festival that is never short on big films from big directors, Much Loved was a true discovery.


TIFF: Mustang, 3000 Nights

Amir continues our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival with a duo of middle eastern films directed by women, the first of which is one of five films shortlisted for Oscar submission selection by France.

Mustang (Turkey/France)
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s first feature is an astonishingly assured debut. The story of five orphaned sisters who live with their grandmother and uncle in rural Turkey is at once a joyous celebration of youth and a rage-inducing depiction of young girls’ lives in religious, conservative societies. Locked inside their house after they are found innocuously playing with male classmates at the beach, the girls are forced to stay away from school and spend their days getting primed to be housewives.

The first half takes on a mostly comic tone, as the girls defiantly rebel against increasingly harsh measures by finding inventive ways to step out of the house or sneak off with their boyfriends. One forced marriage and an unfortunate disaster later, however, the film takes a sharp turn for the serious. [More...]

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Omar Sharif in Egypt

Having already honored Omar Sharif's passing through a Hollywood lens, please welcome new contributor Murtada Elfadl with a look at Sharif's relationship to Egyptian cinema and his leading lady there - Editor.


Faten and Omar in 1955The first thought I had when I heard of Omar Sharif’s passing last week was “Oh, he’s joining Faten!”. Faten Hamama was arguably the biggest female movie star in the Arab World and enjoyed a 50+ year career. She was also Sharif’s leading lady in the 1950s and 1960s. It was through the prism of his relationship with Hamama that I came to know and love Sharif. By the time I was growing up in Sudan in the 1980s her output had shrunk to only a movie every few years but at our house we spent many a night watching her old movies on TV. And watching Faten meant watching Omar.

Sharif’s relationship with Hamama defined his early roles. He was plucked from obscurity and chosen to star with her - the biggest Arab movie star and #1 box office draw - in 1954’s Struggle in the Valley. Their chemistry was combustible on and off screen. It was quite a scandal of the time as Hamama was a married woman and it was the 1950s in a conservative Eastern society. They were of different religions, she’s Muslim, he was Christian. Their love affair had all the ingredients of a soap opera. She got divorced! He converted!  They were the Taylor / Burton of Egypt or the Angelina / Brad of the 1950s Middle East. It speaks to their popularity that they were not shunned by the public and the industry a la Ingrid Bergman whose own love affair / scandal happened just a few years before theirs. [More...]

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Omar Sharif (1932-2015)

Sharif Photographed by Andrew Walker in 2011Hollywood's first and still only Egyptian movie star passed away at 83 today of a heart attack. It had recently been announced that he was suffering from Alzheimers and after such a full life this may feel like a mercy to some, though his loved one are surely grieving and our hearts go out to them.

Though moviegoers roughly 35 and up surely remember him, here's the gist of it for younger budding cinephiles: Sharif began and ended his career in Arabic language cinema but in the vast middle (1960s-1990s) he achieved global stardom via Hollywood and British cinema. His English language debut Lawrence of Arabia (1962) brought him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and he became a genuine superstar in short order, headlining one of the all time biggest box office smashes (Doctor Zhivago, 1965). In his third enduring classic from that decade he helped Barbra Streisand ascend into the pantheon in her film debut Funny Girl (1968). 

In fact, his performances in those three hits are rather fine illustrations of what was so special about his onscreen persona: his generosity and a certain intangible 'eye of the beholder' transference. He was one of the greatest romantic leading men precisely because he seemed so believably in thrall to the particular charismas of his co-stars. And he had great ones: Sophia Loren, Barbra Streisand, Julie Christie, Peter O'Toole, Julie Andrews and more. 

And while he drank in their inimitable beauty, he looked like this:

Dr Zhivago (1965)a portrait from the 1950s when he starred regularly in Egyptian cinema
The Tamarind Seed (1974) and More Than a Miracle (1967)

Double the pleasure, then, for moviegoers who were ready to swoon. And swoon they did, all over the world. 

What's your favorite Omar Sharif performance?



Interview: Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz on 'Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem'

Jose here. In Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Israeli goddess Ronit Elkabetz returns to play a part she’s lived with for more than a decade. In 2004, Ronit and her brother Shlomi teamed up as writers and co-directors of a film trilogy that would concentrate on the experiences of a woman as seen through the roles society imposed on her. In the first installment, To Take a Wife, Viviane must deal with being trapped in a loveless marriage to her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian), in 7 Days, Viviane must sit Shiva and come to terms with the fact that she is obligated to mourn despite not feeling pain. In Gett, which opened this weekend on the heels of its Golden Globe Foreign Film nomination (Oscar passed it by), Viviane is trying to gain her freedom from Elisha, but finds that practically impossible given that her husband hasn’t committed any “sins” against her; her request is deemed invalid by the strict rabbinical court.

In the years since her breakthrough in Late Marriage (2001), also an Israeli Oscar submission, and the first Viviane installment, Ronit has become the face of Israeli cinema having delivered brilliant performances in films like The Band’s Visit and Or. Gett also reveals her growth behind the camera with a much more sophisticated directorial technique, as she and Shlomi tell the story from a very subjective point of view. With their use of the camera and precise shots, they allow Viviane to have the freedom of thought society continues to deny her. A perfectly cast ensemble makes the film a worthy spiritual companion to A Separation and Zodiac, in a way, as they all explore the frustration that comes along with endless, inefficient bureaucratic processes.

During their recent visit to New York City, I talked to Ronit and Shlomi about their collaborations, their unique use of cinematic language and how Gett has rightfully become a sociopolitical sensation in Israel.

The interview is after the jump...    

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Foreign Oscar Watch: Iran's "Today"

[This post is part of our continuing series on this year’s contenders for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. We're aiming to review (gasp) half of them. Here’s Amir with the Iranian entry, Today. He has also interviewed the director and discussed the film on his Iranian cinema podcast "Hello Cinema". - Editor]

Reza Mirkarimi is probably overdue for an Oscar nomination. Sure, his name doesn’t ring a bell for a lot of cinephiles and doesn’t carry the same weight as internationally renowned Iranian auteurs such as Kiarostami, Panahi or Asghar Farhadi, but consider this: He is the only filmmaker to have had his films shunned by both the Academy and the Iranian committee that submits them!

His first try for gold came back in 2005 with So Close, So Far, a meditative and moving portrayal of a broken father-son relationship. It was far stronger than all five of the eventual nominees but that was before voters in this category had begun to vote for what is actually best. Still, he had every reason to be hopeful in 2012 with A Cube of Sugar, a distinctly Iranian film with a regional flavor that surprisingly won awards at every festival it played at. Coming on the back of A Separation’s win, it was reasonable to expect the raised profile of Iranian cinema to help the film along the finish line. Yet, the Iranian committee submitted the film and boycotted the Oscars later on the same day! Remember that strange story?

So, two years on, Mirkarimi is back with Today, a consensus option that wasn’t exceptionally well received in its home country, but saved the committee a whole lot of political trouble compared to their other choices...

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