Eight of the best MENA films to hits our screens in 2022
It’s hard to believe that 2022 has ended, but the last year was not without some stellar bits of MENA representation to look back at fondly.
Of course, I’m not talking about the woeful Black Adam, but in cinemas and on streamers, audiences have got to enjoy, understand and feel seen by stories made by us, for us.
TV series like Mo and Ramy season three have served up relatable Arab characters navigating the choppy waters of identity, legacy, family and faith with Moon Knight coming at those themes with a supernatural horror flex.
Mohamed Diab’s revamp of the orientalist Marvel comics series reminds me of how gutted I am that Netflix cancelled the criminally underrated series Archive 81 which Mauritanian-American actor Mamadou Athie and Saudi Arabian actress Dina Shihabi compellingly led.
I can only hope some other network backs it for a season two but until then, here’s a reminder of the great cinematic stories to be made by or centre people with MENA heritage in 2022.
This is a film that I wish I had seen on the big screen but it is no less impactful watching at home on Netflix.
A major part of that is the cinematography, by Matias Boucard who, under the direction of Romain Gavras, takes us into the passionate, powerful and emotive civilian uprising against the backdrop of a French housing estate.
With hints of Les Misérable (Ladj Ly co-writes with Gavras and Elias Belkeddar), La Haine and a healthy dose of Greek tragedy, this visceral 24-hour epic showcases the tear-inducing talents of Dali Bensallah and Sami Slimane.
They play French-Algerian brothers navigating the grief of their younger brother’s murder by police in violently different ways. Athena is a gut punch of a film that will have you gasping for air and choking back sobs in equal measure.
Pahar Pahani’s irreverent road movie is sharp and heartbreaking. It follows a family of four – middle-aged couple (Hassan Madjooni and Pantea Panahiha), their eldest (Amin Simiar) and young son (Rayan Sarlak) – as they bicker, pester and moan on a trip across the Iranian countryside.
Little is given away about the circumstances that compelled them to make this trip, but as the seemingly inane conversations carry them towards their end destination, love, fear and grief can be gleaned from this family’s non-nonsense dynamic.
Farha is not your typical coming-of-age story. In Darin J. Sallam’s feature debut, the events of the 1948 Nakba are presented through the perspective of the eponymous Palestinian girl.
What begins in hope for her future education quickly descends into harrowing despair as Farha (Karam Taher) is separated from her family as increasing Israeli aggression forces native Palestinian villagers to leave their homeland in droves.
The cruelty and brutality the young girl witnesses, while left behind, is a damning indictment of the oppression and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian community in Palestine that continues today.
Sally El-Hosaini returns to the big screen with The Swimmers, the inspirational true story of Sara and Yusra Mardini, two Syrian sisters and competitive swimmers whose refugee journey from war-torn to Damascus to the Rio Olympics, is one of courage and heroism. But this isn’t simply a harrowing story of survival for displaced individuals.
The Swimmers is both a tale of the tempestuous bonds between siblings (played by real-life sisters Manal and Nathalie Issa) as well as the sporting ambition of an underdog athlete. It’s emotional, funny, relatable, uplifting and always keeps these swimming heroines at the centre of the story. With Sarah Mardini, along with other humanitarians, on trial for their search and rescue efforts near Lesbos, Greece, global solidarity has never been more vital.
Eleven Days in May
A cinematic remembrance of the brutality inflicted on young Palestinian children by Israeli forces, this documentary should be mandatory viewing.
Palestinian filmmaker Mohammed Sawwaf and British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom painstakingly exhibit the lives of each individual child lost to the 11-day bombing campaign by Israel on Gaza in 2021.
From their joyful days of carefree childhood, shown through family pictures, videos and testaments, to the harrowing, tragic images of their dead bodies. It’s a vital yet mournful documentary that hopefully inspires greater compassion and awareness for the reality of this unequal conflict that takes more from one side than the other.
Filmmaker Rita Baghdadi shines a spotlight on an all-Arab female thrash metal band from Lebanon and they are an empowering group to behold. Slave to Sirens is the name of the band and particular focus is put on founding members Lilas and Shery, whose personal and professional relationship is tested as they strive to make an impact on the musical landscape.
It’s certainly not easy for Arab women to push back against gender, romantic and sexual expectations, especially when they are trying to achieve success in the thrash metal scene but Baghdadi offers an endearing and inspiring perspective to keep you rooting for these rockers throughout.
Drawing attention towards the terrible expulsion of Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, but told from an Israeli perspective, Tantura is a powerful documentary by Israeli filmmaker Alon Schwarz. Its title takes its name from the Palestinian village that was massacred in the Nakba and features first-hand interviews with the IDF soldiers who were part of the devastation.
It also zones in on the treatment of Israeli academic, Teddy Katz, who was shunned by academia for his evidence-based research into the specific Tantura attacks. Yet another film to commit the Nakba to cinematic history despite Israel and the West’s best efforts to pretend it didn’t happen.
Dead Poets Society meets Dangerous Minds via School of Rock, but with a thoroughly Moroccan heart, this is an endearing and authentic drama about finding your voice no matter where you come from. Or, especially because of where you come from.
Set in Sidi Moumen, a rapper-turned-music teacher takes up a role at an arts centre to help local youths channel their real-life dissatisfaction into meaningful art that has something real to say. Writer-director Nabil Ayouch cast kids from the centre he set up which gives the interactions, the characters and the various narrative threads – concerning sexism, class, religion and fanaticism – a gritty and emotive level of authenticity. Ayouch has you believing in these kids even when self-destructive behaviours throw a spanner in the works.
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