A cinematic feast from MENA, a hundred miles from Hollywood

A cinematic feast from MENA, a hundred miles from Hollywood
5 min read
13 January, 2024

Only a hundred miles from Hollywood, the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival is an unlikely place for Middle Eastern cinema. And yet, even as this year’s festival opened with a special screening of Barbie, just as an American missile attack killed a Shiah militia leader in Baghdad, the festival remains a stealth treasure trove of films from the MENA.

As chief programmer David Ansen, former artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival and past Newsweek critic, told The New Arab, "People come here to see movies they won't see anywhere else. We're known for our international programme, and Middle Eastern cinema is a large part of that."

Now in its 34th year, the desert festival that was initiated by the late mayor Sonny Bono in 1989, certainly bears a geographical similarity to the region. And while the larger area has typically been a Republican stronghold, Palm Springs is a liberal enclave.

"This year, 5 out of 7 of the films in the festival’s 'Best International Feature Film' short-list are from the MENA"

Many films from the MENA that had their US or international premieres here have gained acknowledgement from the Academy– notably Jordan's Theeb in 2016 (directed by Naji Abu Nowar) about the Arab Revolt of 1916 seen through Bedouin eyes, which would also go on to win an official Oscar nomination.

“We are extremely proud of our film lineup from the MENA region this year,” notes MENA programmer Mimi Brody “and thrilled that many filmmakers, especially women working in the documentary field are being recognized and awarded for their work.”

These include the Palestinian film Bye Bye Tiberias, a documentary by Lina Soualem, daughter of Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (known for her role in HBO’s Succession).

Live Story

The Palestine/France/Belgium/Qatar production is a meditative road movie about revisiting the family home and couldn’t be more timely. In one scene Abbass stands on her ancestral balcony pointing out geographical highlights that but for the Sea of Galilee – could be stand-ins for Palm Springs desert topography.

“There is the sea,” she says, “Over there is Lebanon. There is Syria. And over there is Jordan. And here we are – in the middle.”

Two other documentaries by women include Four Daughters by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania — which recounts the true story of a single mother whose daughters vanish and The Mother of All Lies by Tunisian director Asmae El Moudir who uncovers a web of family secrets when she turns the camera on her parents and eccentric grandmother.

The latter was recently awarded the documentary prize at the IDA (International Documentary Association) and has been shortlisted for the Academy Awards, Best International Feature.

Live Story

This year, five out of seven of the films in the festival’s 'Best International Feature Film' short-list are from the MENA – the other two are from Ukraine (20 Days in Mariupol) and Pakistan (In Flames).

These include Turkey’s About Dry Grasses, a slow-moving but intense film about a forbidden affair between a middle-aged teacher from Istanbul and his young student in a remote, rural area.

Directed by the renowned Nuri Bilge Ceylan, it features gorgeous tableaux of Turkish countryside, contrasted with intimate indoor scenes where a May-December romance is revealed as a slow burn.

The Turkish/French/German/ Swedish production is part of the awards buzz for Best International Feature Film, as is a drama from Yemen (A Yemeni/Saudi/ Sudanese co-production) called The Burdened.

The film offers a rare glimpse into the long-suffering nation via the story of a couple with three children struggling with an unplanned fourth pregnancy amidst soaring healthcare costs and conservative abortion laws.

On the other side of the family planning equation, the Jordan/USA co-production Inshallah a Boy, directed by Amjad Al Rasheed, examines the plight of a widow with no male heirs who risks losing everything.

Live Story

Hajjan – a Saudi/Jordanian/Egyptian film making its US premiere, also employs sport to tell the story of insiders/outsiders in Saudi Arabia, as two young Bedouin brothers become top jockeys in the cutthroat world of camel racing.

Meanwhile, an intriguing film from Iran, Terrestrial Verses (named after the poem by Forugh Farrokhzad) directed by Iranian-Canadian Alireza Khatami and Iranian Ali Asgari, offers food for thought.

Banned in Iran, and with Asgari banned from leaving the country or making movies since its premiere last year in Cannes, the film (part of the festival’s World Cinema Now programme) begins with a scene of Tehran slowly awakening as the dawn call to prayer sounds and ends with an apocalyptic earthquake as an old man expires to a rock soundtrack.

In between, a series of vignettes – think Altman meets Kafka – show how ordinary Iranians must deal with the long, hassling hand of the regime.

Live Story

It's easy to see why authorities banned the film, but as Khatami told The New Arab, his goal is not to further “evilize” Iran, but to show the importance of universal human values.

“How many of you have found yourself on the wrong end of bureaucracy, or a racist co-worker? This kind of thing doesn’t only happen in faraway lands. Here in North America, you can lose your job with a single tweet.

“The world is going toward the right and it’s becoming more difficult to find the space to tell stories – especially in mainstream American cinema,” he says.

But Iran has gone the other way in the past two decades. “It’s becoming easier to tell stories through digital mediums– but there are repercussions afterwards.” Ultimately, he says, films are about conversations.

Happily, compelling conversational cinema about the MENA continues, just 100 miles from Hollywood.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq. www.hadaniditmars.com

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars