Justice, friendships, war and death: MENA films that wowed at the 2021 Berlin film festival

Justice, friendships, war and death: MENA films that wowed at the 2021 Berlin film festival
The MENA films selected by this year's Berlinale brimmed with ambition and artistic audacity.
6 min read
17 March, 2021
'Memory Box' is a tale of truth and reconciliation from 1980s Lebanon [Abbout Productions]
Far from the glamour and glitz of the red carpet usually seen at the Berlin International Film Festival, this year's 71st annual event was a modest yet triumphant virtual affair.

Running from March 5-9, the Berlinale of 2021 marked a low-key digital debut, after Covid-19 restrictions robbed the event of its usual large in-person audience.

Film critics, directors and producers took to their couches
for the digital event, enjoying an impressive selection in relaxed online viewings.

Directors of the event have however, promised that the same programme will return to the German city in June, with planned viewings of all the nominated films  and more  open to the public.

This year's Berlinale has once again shown that Arab and Middle Eastern artists and directors continue to expand the reach of their talents, with many films making the selection, propelling the region's cinema to new heights and well-deserved recognition.

This year's jury also included renowned Iranian director and screenwriter Mohammad Rasoulof, whose film There Is No Evil  which explores the impact of Iran's death penalty on society – had scooped up the coveted Golden Bear last year. The competition jury also included Egyptian award-winning artist Basim Magdy. 

Certainly, the choices from the MENA region  listed below  were among the impressive selection of films screened that brimmed with ambition and artistic audacity.

1. Memory Box - Lebanon/ Qatar/ France/ Canada

Memory Box by Lebanese directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige screened in the Panorama section of this year's Berlinale. The drama film is a story of history, war and reconciliation, starring Rim Turki, Manal Issa and Paloma Vauthier.

It tells the touching story of Lebanese immigrant Maia, who fled her homeland with her family to escape war-torn Beirut. Her story is recalled through her daughter, who unveils Maia's troubled adolescence, after she gets her hands on a box containing journals, tapes and photographs her mother had sent to a friend from Lebanon during the war.

Through Memory Box, directors Hadjithomas and Joreige highlight the emotional process associated with the trauma of war in a unique and touching relay of history.

2. Ballad of a White Crow - Iran/ France

Ballad of a White Cow, co-directed by Behtash Sanaeiha and Maryam Moqaddam, is a heart-wrenching story of an Iranian woman's struggle for justice, recognition and independence. 

Mina is a young woman living alone with her deaf child after her husband was executed for a murder charge. While struggling between caring for her child and piecing her life together, her journey becomes more sorrowful after she discovers that her husband was innocent.

As she battles for a public apology from the judges who served her husband's death sentence, a stranger, Reza, appears on her doorstep, explaining that he has come to repay a debt he owed her husband. Mina gradually opens up to him, unaware of the terrible secret tying them together.

Ballad of a White Cow, which competed for the Golden Bear and Silver Bear awards, adds another strong voice to the chorus of anti-capital punishment films coming out of Iran, where the death penalty is freely applied.

3. As I Want - Egypt/ Palestine/ France/ Norway

As I Want is a feature documentary by Samaher Alqadi  an emerging voice in Arabic documentary filmmaking, whose work focuses on the evolving status of women in the Middle East.

Alqadi's powerful documentary, which was selected for the Encounters section, was motivated by the public rape of her best friend in Cairo. The horrific incident led to a series of mass protests against sexual assault and the start of the #MeToo movement in Egypt, which Alqadi captured with her camera.

The film intertwines the dramatic events of the 2013 women's revolt in Egypt and Alqadi's own personal recollection of growing up in Palestine, revealing how every woman lives through a brutal struggle against a hetero-patriarchal society and an eternal fight for freedom.  

The jury found As I Want a highly relevant and important film for the ongoing battle for gender equality.

4. District Terminal - Iran/ Germany

District Terminal (Mantagheye payani) is a gripping film by Bardia Yadegari and Ehsan Mirhosseini, set in a dystopian future based on Iran's current reality.

It tells the story of a poet living with his mother in an old part of Tehran, struggling with drug addiction, poverty and an exhausting love affair. Yadegari, who plays the protagonist, and Mirhosseini shot the allegorical, autobiographical work in their homes and neighbourhood, casting friends and family who play characters drawn from their real-life experiences.

This bleak Encounters entry is influenced by contemporary social and economic realities, such as US sanctions on Iran, rampant inflation and economic struggles, as well as air pollution and state censorship.

Although it was produced before the coronavirus pandemic hit, it is set in a dystopian future in Tehran, where an unnamed virus has rendered life an unrewarding struggle to survive.

5. Brother's Keeper - Turkey/ Romania

Brother's Keeper (Okul Tıraşı) is a tastefully told East Turkey-set moral fable by Ferit Karahan, which competed for the Panorama section. 

This finely spun drama speaks of two friends, Yusuf and Memo, who are pupils at a secluded boarding school for Kurdish boys. When Memo falls mysteriously ill, Yusuf is forced to struggle through the bureaucratic obstacles put up by the school's repressive authorities to try to help his friend.

By the time the adults in charge finally understand the seriousness of Memo's condition and try to get him to the hospital, the school is surrounded by sudden, heavy snowfall. 

With no way out and now desperate to reach help, teachers and pupils engage in a blame game where grudges, feelings of guilt and hidden secrets emerge, as time ticks mercilessly on.

6. Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living - Lebanon

Death of a Virgin, and the Sin of Not Living is Lebanese director George Peter Barbari's impressive debut in which he deconstructs the global myth that surrounds a masculine rite of passage.

The story of a yearning for self-worth, the fragility of life and everything that leads to demise, is told through the story of four teenage boys from northern Lebanon losing their virginity to a prostitute.

The film, which showed in the Panorama section is based on true events from the director's own life.

7. Miguel's War - Lebanon/ Germany/ Spain

Screening in the Panorama section of the festival, Eliane Raheb's Miguel's War is a story about a gay Lebanese man who flees his homeland after being oppressed by society throughout his youth.

In 1982 he decides to participate in Lebanon's civil war to find a place within society and to prove his worthiness to his family.

8. Souad - Egypt/ Tunisia/ Germany

Ayten Amin's Souad, which was initially meant to make its debut at the 2020 Cannes International Film Festival, showed in the Berlinale's Panorama section.

The film explores how social media affects the life of 19-year-old Souad, who is on the cusp of adulthood. In her everyday life, her desire to explore new kinds of freedom clashed with the expectations of society, her family and religious community, which she has internalised.

Amin gets remarkably close to her characters to depict the longing to know another person and to be recognised ourselves.

9. Seven Years Around the Nile Delta - Egypt

With the start of the Egyptian revolution, director Sharief Zohairy began travelling through the Nile Delta for a period of seven years.

The result of his eight-year-long cinematic journey is a mix of road movie and travelogue, contemplating the diversity of thirty-two cities and villages of the Nile Delta and documenting the contemporary daily activities in this ecologically endangered area.

This five-and-a-half-hour film makes the genre of the travel film appear in a whole different light.

Sarah Khalil is a journalist with The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @skhalil1984