How Arab Films Dominated “Un Certain Regard” Awards at Cannes
The Arab films that participated in the 76th Cannes Film Festival varied in both themes and genres. They had a strong and remarkable presence throughout the competition and other programs of the festival. Six featured films and three short films were chosen to be screened in different sections of this year’s festival. All of them were characterized by bold presentations and a heads-on treatment of issues that are considered taboo in Arab societies. It seems that the films were chosen for this reason in particular. They covered issues ranging from the pains of Arab women to the harsh political and economic reality of these societies.
Four Daughters, by the Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, was the only Arab film to be screened in the official competition. Ben Hania came back to the Cannes Festival after a six years absence. She previously participated with her film Beauty and the Dogs in the opening of the Un Certain Regard competition. The Arabic title of the previous film is Ala Kaf Afreet, which refers to the very unstable situation in that corner of the world. This year’s film, Four Daughters, is a plot that combines documentary with featured story. It is about Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian woman who, in 2016, became well known when she appeared in the media seeking help from the Tunisian state to save her four daughters. The two older daughters escaped the country to get married to two ISIS operatives and became prisoners in Libya. She feared that the two younger daughters would follow in their older sisters’ footsteps.
Olfa appeared as a violent, stubborn mother, who has a huge legacy of oppression and pain and faces many internal contradictions. Like many mothers around the Arab countries, Olfa abuses her daughters, beats them harshly, besieges them, and leaves them no room for freedom. This upbringing is the reason her daughters wanted to escape from their ignorantly cruel mother. They were willing to seek any help, even from ISIS members. The Tunisian director studied the rooted violence in the upbringing of females and how the legacy of oppression, self-contempt, and subjugation to a male-dominated society is inherited at the hands of women in Arab societies. The film is co-produced by France, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Germany.
Un Certain Regard: Three Films and Three Awards
Arab films dominated half of the six awards of the “Un Certain Regard” competition. The Moroccan film Hounds by Kamal Lazraq was awarded the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. The Moroccan director Asmae El Modir won Un Certain Regard Best Director for her film The Mother of All Lies. The Un Certain Regard Freedom Prize went to the Sudanese film Goodbye Julia by Mohamed Kordofani.
Hounds is the first feature film by director Lazraq. Despite its darkness and brutality, the film is a dazzling epic. Lazraq chose Casablanca as the scene for events that lasted for just 24 hours. The characters of the film were living below the poverty line, desperate and fighting to survive. Lazraq opens the film with a scene of a fight between fierce dogs. They devour each other, and an eccentric man puts an end to their battle, killing the dog in cold blood. The dog’s owner gets angry and decides to seek revenge. He agrees with an unemployed man named Hassan, played by (Abdul Latif Al-Masstour), to kidnap the dog’s killer. Hassan carries out the task, kidnaps the man, and then kills him without hesitation. In their crazy world, getting rid of someone is the first and easiest option.
Hassan is then assigned a new job: to kidnap another man. He carries out this task with the help of his young son Issam (Ayoub Al-Eid). They kill the kidnapped man unintentionally, then disagree on how to get rid of him. Hassan, the father, insists on carrying out the burial procedures in accordance with Islamic law. His young son sees that as unnecessary futility; the important thing now is to get rid of the body quickly. The dialogue between the father and his son highlights the duality experienced by the father, the indifference, and the feeling of oppression that the young son suffers from. While searching for a suitable place to get rid of the dead man, events escalate. The movie ends painfully, consistent with the cruelty of life in this crazy world.
Lazraq unveils unknown secrets of the reality of life in Casablanca. Whole communities are living in desperate and violent circumstances as if being controlled by the devil. The film is written and directed by Kamal Lazraq and stars Abdelatif El Masstouri and Ayoub Elaid. It is co-produced by Morocco, France, Belgium, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
In the documentary film, The Mother of All Lies, Asmae El Modir deals with her life since childhood, when she moved from one house to another. She sorts through her private things and finds a picture in which she is seen in the company of some schoolmates. It’s the only remaining picture from her childhood. She suspects that the girl in that picture is herself. She starts a journey to discover the truth. She listens to her family members, she stands by their little lies and she stops at the Casablanca uprising in 1981. She hears about it from different characters. Surprisingly, there is no agreement on even one truth. There are a lot of lies in every story. The film is co-produced by Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.
Goodbye Julia is the first feature film by the Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani and is the first Sudanese film to participate in the Cannes Festival. The director observes the roots and reasons behind the separation of South Sudan, and how corruption and racism led to sowing the seeds of hate among the people of one country. The events center around Mona, a retired singer married to a wealthy man from the North. Unintentionally, Mona runs over a little boy with her car. His father follows her to her house and is then killed by her wealthy husband.
The husband takes advantage of his social influence to turn the case into self-defense but Mona feels guilty and looks after the killed man’s family. She helps his widow Julia, then shelters her and the child when they are expelled from their house, and even hires Julia as her servant. Mona and her husband embrace the child, raising and educating him. After the Southern revolt, a young rebel from the South falls in love with Julia and reveals Mona’s crime, successfully tearing Julia and Mona apart.
The film stars Eiman Yousif, Siran Riak, and Nazar Goma, and is written and directed by Kordofani. It is co-produced by Sudan, Sweden, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
The film Inshallah A Boy, which competed in the International Critics’ Week, was the first Jordanian film in the Cannes Festival. It is the first film by director Amjad Al Rasheed and won two awards: the Rail d’Or du Long métrage and the Gan Foundation Award. The film addresses controversial issues, women’s rights in inheritance and guardianship over children. Al Rasheed discusses taboos in Muslim societies, such as the veil, sex outside the institution of marriage, and the right to abortion. The film stars Mouna Hawa, Yumna Marwan, and Hitham Omari. It is written by Rula Nasser and Delphine Agut.
Elias Belkeddar’s The King of Algiers was screened in the Special Midnight Screenings. It tells the story of an Algerian hustler named Omar la Fraise, who was living in Paris when he was sentenced to twenty years in prison due to his involvement in fraud crime. He travels to Algeria to escape prison. After a tumultuous life, he kills one of his friends. His life changes completely. The film was written by Thomas Bidegain and Jérôme Pierrat and stars Reda Kateb, Benoît Magimel, and Meriem Amiar. It is a French-Algerian production.