Proving the power of MENA storytelling: The best films of 2023
Muslim and MENA representation on screen has never been more important. Islamophobia is rising in the world as is anti-Arab sentiment with the horrific and continued assault on Gaza compounding and legitimising that hate, especially by Western powers.
Cinema is a powerful medium where that sort of discrimination can be normalised; or, it can be countered by humanising, sharply authentic and multifaceted depictions of the Middle East, the Maghreb and North Africa told by people from those regions or in the diaspora.
"Muslim and MENA representation on screen has never been more important"
The year 2023 has again proven the power of MENA storytelling and storytellers and here are a few standouts from the last 12 months:
Cairo Conspiracy (AKA Boy From Heaven)
Tarik Saleh's gritty political thriller takes place at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the world’s most famous Sunni Islamic institution.
A cloud of ambiguity hangs over proceedings as young student Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) is forced to become an informant for the state after the suspicious death of the mosque's Grand Imam.
Subtle, tense and utterly gripping, Barhom is an excellent, earnest lead while Fares Fares – in his second collaboration with Saleh after 2014's The Nile Hilton Incident – brings a brow-beaten gravitas to his detective contending with systemic corruption within Egypt’s class elite.
In Noora Niasari's semi-autobiographical feature debut, Zar Amir takes the lead as the titular mother taking refuge with her young daughter at a woman's shelter in Melbourne, circa 1995.
Shayda is an Iranian immigrant who has escaped her violent husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) and is trying to maintain some normalcy for her daughter while contending with a harrowing divorce and custody battle.
Niasari captures the multicultural tension in the house this mother and daughter share with other victims of domestic violence while also sensitively depicting the psychological ordeal of Shayda as she contends with cultural conservatism and ostracism — an emotionally vigorous and complex familial drama presented with nuance, patience and empathy.
Lofty Nathan’s narrative debut takes place during the aftermath of the Arab Spring, offering a grounded yet visually intriguing portrait of a country still finding its footing following decades of systemic dysfunction.
Ali (Adam Bessa) is an isolated street vendor who dreams of leaving Tunisia for Europe but following his father's death, he is forced to grapple with inherited debt and keeping a roof over his sisters' heads.
It's a potent character study that Bessa enlivens with a simmering performance to match the fiery flourishes and visual motifs to make this drama a worthwhile endeavour.
The debut feature documentary of Jude Chehab, Q, delves into Islamic faith, devotion and family through a deeply personal position.
The Lebanese-American cinematographer and filmmaker centres the film around her mother Hiba, a devout Muslim academic who wears a white hijab, teaches the Quran and was once a member of a secretive matriarchal Muslim order called Qubaysiat led by the mysterious Anisa.
Using archival footage, old photos and talking head interviews, Chehab investigates an all-female religious group that is more cult than cute.
The Qubaysiat's strict, co-dependent demand on its members is explored and unpacked as Hiba reassesses her relationship with the group, being expelled by the late Anisa and the effect it had on her familial connections. Q is a compelling, gorgeously shot portrait of a family trying to mend the fractures.
The Damned Don't Cry
After making a striking statement about close-knit communities and terse friendships with Lynn and Lucy, British-Morrocan filmmaker Fyzal Boulifa serves up an equally admirable commentary on the societal and cultural nuances in Morroco through a mother and son.
Sharply conceived and delicately delivered, this compelling drama follows this impoverished, co-dependent duo as they move from town to town in search of stability in the face of fresh and historic scandal.
It’s a brilliantly grounded tale with cutting confrontations, heart-wrenching, emotional notes and authentically pulled together by a director who knows how to compose a gripping cinematic tune.
Bye Bye Tiberias
This intimate documentary spanning the lives of four generations of Palestinian women couldn't be more timely. Director Lina Soualem uses a poetic essay framing device – co-written by Nadine Naous and Gladys Joujou – to reach into the past of her maternal bloodline, primarily through her mother Hiam Abbass.
The star of French, Arab and Western cinema, who earned recent acclaim for her roles in Succession, Ramy and Degrade, Abbass left her hometown of Deir Hanna in her 20s and was estranged from her family for years.
Soualem keeps her mother in focus as she excavates her memories and familial fractures while paying homage to the women who came before her – and the wider Palestinian struggle to keep their shared history, heritage and culture alive.
Under The Fig Tree
In Erige Sehiri's narrative feature debut, the French Tunisian director makes exquisite use of her documentarian sensibilities to explore a group of fig pickers in rural Tunisia.
Set across one day, the interlinked tales of each character capture the heightened emotions of young men and women with big dreams but held back by economic and social reality.
Naturalistic performances keep you close to these frustrated workers; even at its most dramatic, from confrontations between girls over boys and boys inappropriately treating girls, Sehiri maintains a relatability and realistic tone that never veers into the exploitative.
In writer-director Kamal Lazraq‘s gritty debut, a father and son's calamitous misadventure takes place against the unsentimental backdrop of Casablanca's criminal underbelly.
Tasked with kidnapping the henchman of their mob boss's rival, x plan goes from bad to worse and y has to deal with his father's bad decision-making.
Lazraq uses gallows humour and naturalistic visuals to paint a stark image of Moroccan society and the issues of poverty, criminality and morality that plague a corner of its working-class community.
Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN
Follow her here: @HannaFlint