Egypt Pulse

Middle East pins Oscar hopes on young directors

Article Summary
From Lebanon to Egypt to Tunisia, regional countries' Academy Awards nominees for best foreign language film are mostly the works of young directors and center on the lives of young adults and children.

CAIRO — Middle Eastern countries from Egypt to Lebanon have lined up their candidates for the Academy Awards for best foreign language film, hoping that their young directors and cast of first-timers can bring home the coveted prize.

“The young cineastes of the region have courage and innovation that makes them come up with unique ideas for successful movies,” Ismail Sonaa, the founder of Egypt’s Ismail Sonaa blog on movies, told Al-Monitor. If the young directors pull off a few international awards in 2019, it may mark the beginning of a youth revolution in Middle Eastern cinema, he said.

Egypt and Lebanon have particularly high hopes for this year’s Academy Awards. Both countries' official nominations for best foreign film have already been tested before international audiences: “Capernaum” by Lebanese director and writer Nadine Labaki and “Yomeddine” (“Judgement Day”) by Egyptian director and writer Abu Bakr Shawky were screened at the Cannes Festival in May, getting positive reviews and, in the case of Yomeddine, the Francois Chalais Prize

Labaki, who has directed and written four films including "Caramel," is part of a new generation of young directors in Lebanon. She collaborated with young writers Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany on the film, which tells the story of 12-year-old Zein, who takes his parents to court for giving him life in a world of pain and suffering. The film stars a number of new actors such as Kawthar al-Haddad and Fadi Yousef, who make their first appearances in the world of cinema.

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Likewise, 33-year-old award-winner Shawky also used amateur actors for his tragicomedy on discrimination and friendship. "Yomeddine" portrays the relationship between a recovered leper and a Nubian child as both travel across Egypt. Both lead roles are played by first-timers: Rady Gamal and Ahmed Abdelhafiz.

Young filmmakers are behind many other regional nominees. Algeria’s nominee, “Until the End of Time,” was directed and written by 36-year-old Yasmine Chouikh. It tells the story of Johar, a woman grieving the death of her husband, and becomes a romance when she meets Ali the gravedigger.

Tunisia nominated the dark and daring “Beauty and the Dogs,” directed and written by 41-year-old Kaouther Ben Hania. Based on a real story, the film casts a critical eye on rape and sexual harassment in Tunisia.

Israel nominated "The Cakemaker," written and directed by 37-year-old Ofir Raul Graizer. The film, which was honored at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival earlier this year, narrates the love affair between Thomas, a young German baker, and a married Israeli man who frequently visits Berlin on business. When the man dies in a car crash in Israel, Thomas travels to Jerusalem seeking answers about his death.

Turkey chose award-winning director Nur Bilge Ceylan’s "The Wild Pear Tree" as its entry. The movie tells the story of a young university graduate and would-be writer who comes back to his rural village with a diploma but no job and tries to decide what to do with his life. Nostalgic, emotional and pessimistic, the film depicts the lost hopes of Turkey's young people, as well as their youthful insolence.

Meanwhile, Iran selected Vahid Jalilvand’s “No Date, No Signature,” a story about the complex death of an 8-year-old boy and the guilt of the adults who might have caused it. The movie is co-written by director Jalilwand and Ali Zarnegar, who is in his 20s. The movie is the second by Jalilvand, following his famous first movie “Wednesday, May 9.”

Most of the submissions are not only by young directors, but also focus on adults people and children. The nominees of Lebanon, Iran and Egypt center on the poverty, marginalization and suffering of children in the region, while Israel, Tunisia and Turkey’s submissions deal with sexuality, rebellion and the thwarted dreams of young people.

Given the subjects, it is not surprising that the cast of the films make up a long list of new actors, such as Mariam Al Ferjani and Ghanem Zrelli from Tunisia, Hazar Erguclu and Dogu Demirkol from Turkey and Amir Aghaee and Zakieh Behbahani from Iran.

But jury is still out on whether the region’s bright young directors can take credit for revolutionizing the Middle East cinema scene.

“[Young directors] have a modern vision and a fresh outlook compared to the old and more established directors and actors,” Egyptian cinema critic Nadel Adly told Al-Monitor, explaining that the young directors are both ambitious and in sync with the times. “Using social media and the internet, they are more capable of staying up to date with and benefitting from the artistic vibes flowing across the world. There is a desire to defy and prove wrong all those who did not believe in them as amateurs. This desire prompts them to prove themselves and make influential movies.”

Sonaa, the Egyptian cinema blogger, pointed out that the Arab Spring and national revolutions have helped increase freedoms in the Arab world and the Middle East in general, saying that many of these directors have focused on controversial subjects — such as marginalization, poverty, freedoms, sexual harassment, homosexuality — that were rarely taken up before the Arab Spring.

Jaber al-Ghoul, a Syrian film critic who writes for the Film Magazine blog, told Al-Monitor that it is still too early to tell whether the young generation is set to take over the cinema world in the Middle East. The current season may have been an exception, he said, explaining that it would not be fair to assume that only youngsters have modern visions. He warned not to overlook the achievements of many veteran directors such as Youssef Chahine, Abbas Kiarostami, Omar Amiralay, Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina and Hany Abu-Assaad, all of whom had been innovative in the industry.

But just how many of these nominations will make it to the Academy Awards' shortlist for foreign language films in early January? Eylem Atakav, a Turkish lecturer in film and television studies at the University of East Anglia in the United Arab Emirates and founder of the Eylem Atakav blog, told Al-Monitor that it's too early to declare victory. "The Academy Awards are not international like the Cannes Film Festival Awards. It is an American award and the movies nominated for best foreign film will be assessed from an American perspective,” she said.

“Most of the Arab or Middle Eastern films rely on a classical narrative that includes an exposition, a rising action, a climax and a resolution. US films tend to be modern and may start with the climax. The closer the movie is to the American style, the better chances it has,” she added.

Paraskevi Nizoud, the Iranian founder of the Iranian Film Empire blog, told Al-Monitor that he does not expect any of the films representing the Middle East to win. The award, he said, is a political one that tends to prefer Middle Eastern films whose social and political point of view is close to the United States' own.

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Ahmed Fouad is an Egyptian journalist working as newsroom assistant manager for Al-Shorouk. He specializes in coverage of Islamists and analysis of the political situation in Egypt, especially since the mass protests of June 30, 2013, the one-year anniversary of Mohammed Morsi's presidential inauguration.

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