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Eight Films That Portray Another Side of the Mideast

With so much news focused on the violent strife that plagues the Middle East, heartache and despair sometimes seem the pre-eminent themes of the region. From Iran to Lebanon, Al-Monitor looks at films that instill hope in their audiences — and show the other side of life.
Asghar Farhadi, director of Iranian film "A Separation", kisses his award for Best Foreign Language film during the 84th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 26, 2012.  REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) (OSCARS-BACKSTAGE)

With so much news focused on the violent strife that often plagues the Middle East, it could seem as if there is nothing but heartache and despair in the region. But movie-lovers know better. In the following films, filmmakers depict essential human experiences without relying on the region’s pervading violence. Instead, they turn their stories into compelling pieces of art that instill hope in their audiences—and show the other side of life.

A Separation (2011) 

As tensions between Iran, the West, and its neighbors in the Gulf continue to escalate, in the world of film, Iranian filmmakers continue to create universal stories. Asghar Farhadi’s film garnered numerous accolades this past awards season, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The story of a married couple who has decided to divorce because one wants to leave Iran, while the other wants to stay,  A Separation transcends the limitations of culture and circumstance to show a story about people—wherever they may be. The characters have to deal with decisions about the future of their daughter, the care of an aging parent, and the conflicts of just being human under pressure.  A Separation relies on powerful performances along with Farhadi’s superb direction, and ultimately cuts to the core of complex and universal human emotions, proving the importance of honesty and forgiveness. It is a film that sings true to anyone in the world, even though this particular couple’s experience is an Iranian one.

Just Like Us (2010) 

While this is not one of the most technically excelling films, the storyline and the message is uplifting and inspires hope for understanding between Middle Eastern and "Western" cultures. And the subject is stand-up comedy! How could one not be uplifted after 70 minutes spent laughing? Comedian Ahmed Ahmed leads a tour of Middle Eastern stand-up acts, or so called "comedy ambassadors," from Dubai to Beirut, Riyadh to Cairo to bring laughter and relief to their homelands and to work towards breaking the pervasive image of Arabs and Muslims as solemn and threatening. As one performer says, "if we can learn to laugh at ourselves, the rest of the world will laugh with us."

12 Angry Lebanese (2009) 

For 15 months, director Zeina Deccache works with 45 inmates at a Lebanese Prison on an adaptation of Reginald Rose's play, 12 Angry Men. This beautiful and often challenging documentary proves that art truly has the power to restore dignity, to instill hope and to heal even those in the greatest depths of despair. The struggles are many, the red-tape is abundant and the doubts are constant, but Deccache is inspiringly powerful and her love and persistence are infectious. 

Budrus (2009) 

Judging from the news alone, the violence never rests in Palestine, but with this documentary, Julia Bacha subtly points to the power of peaceful activism. She enters Budrus, a sleepy village in the West Bank and discovers activist Ayed Morrar faced with the imminent construction of an Israeli security fence that would divide and surround his village, thus separating Budrus’ population from hundreds of acres of vital farmland. In a masterstroke, Morrar unites Hamas and Fatah in a peaceful protest that soon attracts Israelis and other foreigners. Bacha chronicles the struggles that transpire over 10 months, culminating in the Israeli government’s decision to move the fence west, no longer separating the village

Football Under Cover (2008)

When two of Football Under Cover’s producers, German Marlene Assmann and Iranian Ayat Najafi met at a German film festival, they immediately connected over each other’s short films, both of which centered on women’s soccer. Together, they worked arduously to arrange a match between Assmann’s team in Germany and an Iranian women’s club. And, so, through sport, the multicultural team, captures a story fueled by a number of strong-willed women—an image far from that of veiled women passively living their lives in private.

Captain Abu Raed (2010) 

The directorial debut of the young American-educated Jordanian director Amin Matalqa and the first Jordanian independent film, Captain Abu Raed won over audiences at the Sundance Film Festival as it took home the Audience Award for World Cinema in 2008. When Abu Raed, a poor Jordanian airport janitor, discovers a captain’s hat in the trash, the children in his impoverished neighborhood conclude that he must be a pilot. Instead of discouraging their mistaken assumptions, Abu Raed recouunts the romantic tales of his imaginary travels. Through his understated story-telling, Matalqa crafts a complex character that originally hoped only to lift the spirits of his young audience, but ultimately forges meaningful friendships across generations.

The English Sheik and the Yemeni Gentleman (2000) 

In this autobiographical travel documentary, director Bader Ben Hirsi, an ethnic Yemeni living in London, embarks on his first trip to the homeland of his ancestors. He seeks out an unlikely tour guide though— the eccentric English author, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who had been living in the capital Sana’a for over 15 years. The two men, roles seemingly reversed, form a strong friendship while traversing the Yemeni countryside. Aided by gorgeous cinematography from Iraqi-born British filmmaker Koutaiba Al Janabi, Ben Hirsi captures a unique view of a country rarely examined by Westerners in this very personal story. A hidden treaure, you 're going to have to look farther than YouTube for a glimpse of this one.

The Song of Sparrows (2008) 

Award-winning Iranian director Majid Majidi unravels his intricate tale of Karim, a poor ostrich rancher, in 2008's The Song of Sparrows. After losing his job just days after his daughter breaks her expensive hearing aid, Karim travels to Tehran in hopes of repairing it or procuring her a new one. Instead, the possibility of a job as a city taxi driver — one that pays much more than his work on the ranch — distracts him, flooding his mind with romantic dreams of wealth. It takes a dangerous fall that leaves Karim bedridden to remind him of his happiness’ true source. With much help from Reza Naji’s superb portrayal of Karim, Majidi subtly comments on universal issues like class and the temptation to chase riches.


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