Must-See Films from the Arab World

Look at the screen and see another world appear. This isn’t a long, leisurely look outside the train window. These are foreign films that not only ...

Oct 5, 2013

Look at the screen and see another world appear. This isn’t a long, leisurely look outside the train window. These are foreign films that not only provide entertainment and aesthetic fulfillment but also function as a window into another culture. They give insight into political views that aren’t easily verbalized and articulate their current culture and zeitgeist precisely into emotionally stirring cinematography.
For anyone interested in learning more about Arab cinema, just talking with fellow classmates and teachers can reveal a lot of good resources.
Freshman Ahmad Yacout recommended a wide range of modern films and Egyptian classics.
“One of the best Emirati movies I’ve seen is ... “City of Life,” Yacout said. “This one tells three separate stories about three different parts of society that gradually converge to create ‘The City.’”
Sophomore Sala Shaker, a resident film junkie, listed numerous movie titles off the top of her head.
“I love Nadine Labaki,” Shaker said. “Her films “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now” are both phenomenal.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m just very biased towards Lebanese cinema,” she added. “The films are some of the best.”
Professor Omima El Araby, an Arabic language instructor at NYU Abu Dhabi, recommended Egyptian films from the 1950s.
“There’s a list of the top one hundred Egyptian movies,” El Araby said. “But I’ll always be a classics girl.”
For the viewer's pleasure and convenience, all this insight has been condensed into a list of ten movies that attempts to show the diversity and depth of Arab cinema for the viewer’s pleasure and convenience.
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This 2007 film from Nadine Labaki captures the candid side of a slightly run-down Beirut beauty parlor. Although the sign out front has fallen from its previous glory, some women still walk in to find a place of comfort and understanding. Though set in a time rife with conflict in Lebanon, “Caramel” focuses on more personal aspects of life, from affairs to aging. Nadine Labaki, the director and co-writer, also stars in the movie. The music by Khaled Mouzanar is rich in variety, ranging from Arabic lyrical music and tango-esque ballads to sweeping neo-classical compositions.
In 2007, it was the official selection for the Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight and the Official Selection for Toronto Film Festival Gala.
The Yacoubian Building
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This 2006 Egyptian film based on a book by Alaa Al-Aswany is notorious for its unrelenting gaze on all aspects of society. The film has a wide variety of characters from every social strata who often give unheard perspectives on the changes taking place in Egypt. The film also is one of the first major Arab films to discuss homosexuality. At times it is humorous, at times dark, but even more, it is daringly honest in its commentary on society.
Director Marwan Hamed won Best New Narrative Filmmaker at the Tribeca Film Festival and Golden Eye at the Zurich Film Festival in 2006.
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A Saudi film released just last year by director Haifaa Al Mansour, Wadjda is about an 11-year-old girl longing for a green bicycle. A simple desire to defeat Abdullah, a boy from her neighborhood, in a bicycle race uncovers the deeper layers of Saudi society. Wadjda struggles simultaneously to get the money for her bike and to overcome the expectations placed on her, while her mother deals with the possibility of her husband getting a second wife. Filmed completely on the streets of Riyadh, the movie with neorealist influences is the product of five years’ hard work. These efforts were worth it, however, as Al Mansour was able to send her movie to the 86th Academy Awards.
The movie has won numerous awards at international film festivals, including best film in the Muhr Arab feature competition at the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival.
Paradise Now
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This 2005 thriller is about two Palestinian men who plan a suicide attack. The film, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, examines the relationship between Palestine and Israel and blurs the line between what is thought to be right and wrong. This cerebral work combines a strong cast with sharp cinematography to make a powerful comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Paradise Now” was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 78th Academy Awards and won the Best Foreign Language Film prize in the Golden Globe Awards that year.
The Battle of Algiers
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This 1996 film is about the Algerian War against the French Government. Inspirational to insurgent groups, this classic postcolonial film was banned in France for five years.  “The Battle of Algiers” was filmed in black and white and in a documentary-newsreel style. The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, worked with thousands of extras and experimented with sound effects to enhance the work. The French army was accompanied by the sound of gunfire and helicopters whereas the Algerian insurgency was characterized by wailings and chants. The movie reminds the viewer of the harshness and savagery of war.
Pontecorvo was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director in 1969 and for Best Screenplay, along with Franco Solinas and other international awards.
Ghazal al Banat
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“Ghazal Al-Banat,” also known as “The Flirtation of Girls,” is a classic Egyptian film from 1949. Though considered a romantic comedy, this film makes a critical comment about women’s equality. In black and white, the movie-musical has lively songs and numerous musical numbers. Egyptian critics consider this movie to be among the top ten Egyptian movies of all time. The director, Anwar Wagdi, had a very prolific film career and was married to Leila Mourad, the star of the film.
West Beirut
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“West Beirut,” a 1998 Lebanese drama, is a coming-of-age film about two teenagers in war-torn Beirut. Tarek and Omar, accompanied by their Christian friend, May, document the occurrences on the streets with a Super-8 camera, as they learn through their experiences about adulthood, the turmoils of life and the horrors of war. Sincere, honest, lightly humorous and full of the spirit of the ‘90s, Ziad Doueiri’s film touches on this tumultuous period with sentimentality and a great range of emotions.
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“Ajami,” an Arab-Israeli co-production, depicts life in a mixed community in Jaffa. Five storylines mingle and cross through the violent suburbs of the big cities where the inhabitants struggle to make ends meet. The film presents an image of everyday life in the area around Tel Aviv that challenges its Israeli audience.
Scandar Copti, director of “Ajami,” is a visiting professor of film and new media at NYUAD. This movie is Copti’s first full-length feature film and it has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and won the Camera d’Or Special Mention.
City of Life
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“City of Life” is an Emirati film that was released in 2009. It is multilingual and depicts the many strata of society in Dubai, including an Emirati, an Indian taxi-driver and a European expatriate. Ali F. Mostafa, an Emirati director, touched on stereotypes while creating an image of the essence of Dubai. The movie focuses on the dreams of people who live in the Emirates and have moved to pursue them, an act that hits close to home for many NYUAD students. The UAE’s first international big budget feature film has brought Mostafa the title of Best Emirati Filmmaker at the Dubai International Film Festival and Young Filmmaker of the Year at the Digital Studio Awards.
The Iron Gate
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“The Iron Gate,” also known as “Cairo Station,” is a 1958 Egyptian drama. The movie is centered around a handicapped man named Qinawi who stalks a women’s cold drink shop. He is in love with an engaged woman, and the pain of rejection drives him insane. The movie also references the fiery rhetoric of trade unions and the debates surrounding them. As part of Egypt’s golden age of movies, it is a must-see for anyone interested in Arabic cinema.
Youssef Chahine, who directed the movie, was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear award.
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