DUBAI: From groundbreaking Saudi films to hard-hitting work from North Africa, we look back on a great year for Arab cinema
Director: Ali Kalthami
Starring: Mohammed Dokhei, Hajar Alshammari, Sarah Taibah
While the wrestling comedy “Sattar” — another film from the groundbreaking Saudi production company Telfaz11 — was the movie that proved that Saudi audiences will embrace local productions on a blockbuster scale, “Mandoob,” the debut feature of Telfaz11 co-founder Ali Kalthami, may be the more impressive achievement. A stylish and substantive noir about a desperate man unwittingly pulled into Riyadh’s underworld, it has become an instant hit in the Kingdom, and already seems destined to become a pillar on which elevated Saudi cinema will be built — it’s a movie that young men will hang posters of in their bedrooms for years to come. Its distinctive visual language punctuates a committed, star-making performance from Dokhei, who crafted a character that won’t be forgotten.
Director: Abu Bakr Shawky
Starring: Omar Al-Atawi, Toleen Barbood, Ibrahim Al-Hasawi
If there’s one Saudi film from 2023 that’s easiest to recommend to people of all ages, it’s “Hajjan,” the latest from acclaimed Egyptian filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky. He and fellow Egyptian Omar Shama and Saudi writer Mufarrij Almajfel created a gorgeous fable of a young boy and his beloved camel Hofira, which also doubles as the year’s best sports film. In it, the boy is forced to join the racing team of the man who may be responsible for his brother’s death, a potent conflict that heightens the drama of each thrillingly-documented race. With stunning cinematography that captures the beauty of NEOM and naturalistic acting from its cast, both fresh and experienced, this is a film that will make audiences stand up and cheer when it finally hits wide release early next year.
Director: Mohamed Kordofani
Starring: Eiman Yousif, Siran Riak, Nazar Goma
“Goodbye Julia” may be a conscious denunciation of the racism that tore Sudan apart, but this debut feature from Sudanese filmmaker Mohamed Kordofani is most affecting not just for its clear-eyed moral stance, but for the immense empathy it shows its characters, even those with deep-rooted hate in their hearts. The Karthoum-set story follows a woman from the country’s north named Mona, who hires a young mother named Julia to be her live-in maid. Why does she do so? Because she unintentionally caused the death of Julia’s husband, who was shot by Mona’s own husband Akram in what he thought was self-defense. As their lives become entangled over the next five years, the lies only multiply, threatening to destroy each of their lives forever. Engaging from start to finish, this is a masterpiece that should not be missed, whether you’re familiar with Sudan’s intricacies or not.
‘Inshallah A Boy’
Director: Amjad Al Rasheed
Starring: Mouna Hawa, Hitham Omari, Yumna Marwan
Another strong Academy Award contender from the region, Amjad Al-Rasheed’s piercing critique of Jordanian society is an ode to the many strong women in his life whom he has seen fall prey to men who abuse antiquated legal systems to their own gain. The first Jordanian film to screen at Cannes, “Inshallah A Boy” has since resonated with audiences across the world, who have connected not only with its themes, but with its superlative performances and staging. Much like “Goodbye Julia,” a fellow submission to next year’s International Feature Film Oscar category, this is another masterful debut from a filmmaker whose exploration of his own culture proves that the love we may have for our society should never stop us from being honest about its flaws.
Director: Farah Nabulsi
Starring: Saleh Bakri, Imogen Poots, Muhammad Abed Elrahman
No other film on this list connects more deeply with the global conversation of the moment than British-Palestinian filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s “The Teacher.” Set in Palestine’s West Bank, it follows a complicated anti-hero played by the masterful, soulful Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri. He portrays a teacher who struggles to keep his community intact during a wave of violence, as well as keep his secrets hidden from the young international aid worker (Imogen Poots) with whom he has a budding romance. While Nabulsi’s “The Present” was one of the few international short films to become a global hot topic after its 2021 Oscar nomination, “The Teacher” is a more-accomplished piece of work, offering no easy answers to an unbearable ongoing tragedy that continues to weigh down the world.
Director: Tawfik Alzaidi
Starring: Yaqoub Alfarhan, Maria Bahrawi, Abdullah Alsadhan
While Kalthami’s “Mandoob” was the year’s best look at Saudi Arabia’s present, “Norah” is a much-needed dive into the Kingdom’s past — an AlUla-set ode to the generations of Saudi artists who lived in a time when the opportunities to display their talents didn’t yet exist. While there is tragedy in its conceit, following an artist named Nader who takes a job as a teacher because he cannot survive on his art, it is also profoundly hopeful. The clue is in the name: ‘Norah.’ She’s a young girl in Nader’s class (played by newcomer Maria Bahrawi), who doesn’t yet know the bright future that may be ahead of her if she just manages to broaden her imagination. In a way, Alzaidi embodies both these characters, as he too had years of struggle to become a filmmaker, but now, in a new Saudi Arabia, his path, and the young generation of burgeoning storytellers he will surely inspire, is paved with gold.
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Starring: Hend Sabry, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui
The Tunisian filmmaker’s global profile skyrocketed with her dynamite 2020 satire “The Man who Sold his Skin,” but she has long been one of the region’s most brilliant, singular cinematic artists. Her latest, the impossible-to-categorize hybrid documentary-drama, may be her most cerebral to date. It tells the story of a mother of four who loses two daughters to extremism after they run off to join Daesh, and Ben Hania cast both the actual family and a team of actors — all of whom interact and emotionally dissect the situation. If there was a stone left to be turned, I certainly couldn’t spot it.
‘The Mother of All Lies’
Director: Asmae El-Moudir
Starring: Asmae El-Moudir
Another festival hit, the Saudi-backed “The Mother of All Lies” is a deeply personal journey for its Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El-Moudir, who has made a career out of introspection. Her last film saw her venture back to the remote village in which her mother was raised, a journey into her heritage as much as the country she thought she knew. Her follow up is even more personal, inspired by a photograph she’s kept since she was a child that she thought was of her, but is not actually her at all. As she unravels the truth, the film becomes an effective mystery as well as a stirring exploration of Moroccan society.