Palm Springs cultivates taste for Middle East cinema

Palm Springs cultivates taste for Middle East cinema
The international film festival featured dozens of films from the Middle East and North Africa, as the appetite grows for cinema from the region, reports Hadani Ditmars
5 min read
24 Jan, 2018
The Palm Springs FIlm Festival has showcased cutting edge film from the MIddle East [AFP]

With its desert landscapes evocative of the Middle East and North Africa, Palm Springs is a place where the MENA region often springs to mind.

But thanks to the Palm Springs International Film Festival - initiated by former mayor Sonny Bono in 1990 - the city is also growing in significance as a showcase for cutting edge cinema from the region.

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

While the festival - only 100 miles from LA - has its fair share of Hollywood glamour (this year the likes of Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan and Jessica Chastain were honoured at a glittering gala), its also a hotbed of exciting new world cinema.

Timed to coincide with the beginning of the awards season, PSIFF is also known for its uncanny ability to predict foreign Oscar nominees - as well as its often provocative programming that has been both prescient and envelope-pushing in its choices. 

In 2015, Abderrahmane Sissako's French-Mauritanian production Timbuktu - a moving, lovingly crafted film about the brief occupation of Timbuktu in Mali by hardline Islamist group Ansar Dine - played at the PSIFF, with Sissako himself attending, several weeks before being nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.

Also in 2015, Palestinian filmmaker Najwa al-Najar came with her film, Eyes of a Thief - inspired by the real-life story of the Silwad sniper - for its US premiere, just as Clint Eastwood's American Sniper was making more commercial waves. She returned to Jordan with an LA Times interview, and meetings with some key American distributors.

In 2016, all nine of the foreign films shortlisted from the initial submissions were shown at the festival and all nine directors attended. These included Jordan's Theeb (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.

Theeb, directed by Naji Abu Nowar [pictured], was
one of nine 
shortlisted foreign films shown
at Palm Springs last year [AFP]

Last year's impressive round-up included Asghar Farhadi's Willy Loman inspired Salesman (which won the Oscar even as the Iranian director boycotted the ceremony in protest at Trump's travel ban); Maysaloun Hamoud's In Between about three young Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv, and the charming Saudi comedy Barakah Meets Barakah.

This year did not disappoint. There were more than two dozen films from the MENA region at the 2018 PSIFF, including Oscar shortlisted films Foxtrot, by Israeli director Samuel Maoz, and Lebanese Ziad Doueiri's The Insult.

Other highlights included the US premiere of The Journey , Mohammed al Daradji's film about an Iraqi female suicide bomber, and the North American premiere of Afghanistan's first official feminist film - Letter to the President, directed by Roya Sadat - about a woman facing the death penalty for killing her abusive husband. 

The fraught war drama Syria and Vahid Jalilvand's No Date, No Signature - a kind of Iranian version of Crash - were also notable.

But there were almost as many comedies on offer, including the world premiere of On Borrowed Time about old men in a retirement home in Dubai; The Cousin, a dark comedy about liberal Israeli good intentions; and Maktub, a comedy about mob enforcers in Jerusalem.

But Foxtrot and The Insult in particular make for an interesting comparison - and not only because they're both riveting in their own ways. Maoz's film about the power of grief conveyed through the lives of a young Israeli soldier and his parents rivals his excellent 2009 Lebanon, about the horrors of the invasion.

Doueiri's The Insult delves into the explosive ethnic politics of his homeland by exploring an argument writ large between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian refugee and is a worthy sibling to his 1998 wartime drama (and Lebanon's then-official Oscar entry), West Beirut.

Ziad Doueiri has faced controversy in Lebanon due to his
opposition to boycotts of Israel [AFP]

But both filmmakers have also faced criticism from their countrymen.

While Maoz's film won the Silver Lion grand jury prize from the Venice Film Festival in September, and swept the Ophir awards - making it the country's official Oscar entry, it garnered a damning response from Israel's right-wing Minister of Culture Miri Regev. He took to Facebook to claim that the film's "international embrace" was "the result of self-flagellation and cooperation with the anti-Israel narrative".

For his part, Doueiri has faced controversy in Lebanon for his opposition to boycotts of Israel and for shooting part of his 2012 film The Attack in Israel with Israeli actors. After winning an award for The Insult at the Venice Film Festival last September, he was detained in Beirut, but eventually released with all charges dropped.

Happily for both filmmakers, such controversies will likely only add to their films' popularity.

And with the PSIFF lucky precedents, these two were both strong contenders for making the final Oscar nominations. In the end, it was The Insult, the winner of the PSIFF's 2018 HP Bridging the Borders Award - offered by Cinema Without Borders - that won the nomination.

It's another example of the kind of programming that makes the PSIFF so uniquely placed to tell nuanced stories about the MENA region, 100 miles from Hollywood and in the midst of Trump's America. 

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars