Arab cinema makes history, twice, at this year's Festival de Cannes

With the first Tunisian film In Competition in more than fifty years, and the first ever Sudanese title included in the festival's Official Selection, this is already looking like a stellar year for cinema from the MENA on the Croisette.
Arab cinema makes history, twice, at this year's Festival de Cannes

On an overcast but mild day in Paris, while pension reform revolts echoed on the streets of the French capital, during a press briefing held online by Cannes President Iris Knobloch and Festival Delegate Thierry Frémaux, the titles unveiled revealed a great mix of world cinema. Along with celebrated auteurs -- like Wes Anderson who brings his latest Asteroid City to the red steps of the Croisette -- indie greats like Jessica Hausner's Club Zero, an international co-production also supported by the Doha Film Institute co-starring Amir El-Masry, and MENA standouts, this is turning into one cool year for the Festival de Cannes, which turns 76 this year. Plus, it's time for a serious celebration if you're a filmmaker from the Region and no dreams are too big for you, as of today, because the sky, and Cannes are the limits.

Academy Award nominated Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania has been tapped to participate in the main Competition with her latest, Les Filles d'Olfa (Four Daughters) which Frémaux called "a film bordering on fiction, an essay, a certain political declaration, a human, humanist and feminist commitment". This marks the first time in more than fifty years that a Tunisian title has been In Competition in Cannes, since the 1970-released A Simple Story by the late Abdellatif Ben Ammar.

Ben Hania's fifth feature film brings together a cast made up of Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Hind Sabri, Nour Karoui, Ichraq Matar and Majd Mastoura. The filmmaker is one of five women directors in the main competition and this marks her third time in Cannes with a film, after her debut in the ACID section in 2014 with The Challat de Tunis and Beauty and the Dogs which was selected in 2017 for Un Certain Regard. What makes Four Daughters fascinating on first read of the story is how she promises to blend documentary with fiction by "inserting" four actresses into the real story of a mother whose daughters went out to join Daesh, ISIS in Libya and become imprisoned there following an American attack. Olfa, the mother, played also by Tunisian Egyptian actress Hend Sabri, becomes an overnight media figure to be lynched in the public square, because, after all she gave birth to monsters. But, still a mother, Olfa promises to do everything she can to bring her daughters home.

Sudan is also making history this year, with the first ever Sudanese feature competing, this one in Un Certain Regard. It's Mohamed Kordofani's first feature titled Goodbye Julia, starring Eiman Yousif, Siran Riak — the former Ms. Sudan — Nazar Goma, and Ger Duany, and is produced by award-winning Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala's Station Films, in collaboration with Mohamed Al-Omda. The film follows the story of Mona, a northern Sudanese retired singer in an unhappy marriage, who is wrought by guilt after covering up a murder. In an attempt to make amends, she takes in the deceased’s widow, Julia, from South Sudan and her son, Daniel.

Unable to confess her transgressions to Julia, Mona decides to leave the past behind and adjust to a new status quo, unaware that the country’s turmoil may find its way into her home and place her face to face with her past sins.

Also in Un Certain Regard is Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir's The Mother of All Lies, which received a development grant from the DFI in the spring of 2019. The film's synopsis from the Qumra catalogue reads: "Asmae, a 28-year-old Moroccan woman filmmaker doesn’t have any pictures of herself as a child. The only one her mother could provide is an old photograph damaged by time, where we can barely recognize a little girl in the background. It is the only visual evidence she has from her childhood. But Asmae knows it’s not her and she will play with this incident of the strange photograph to tell other stories that she doesn’t believe as well. This sensitive subject will be the starting point of an investigation that unfolds the secrets of a Casablanca family. Using different personal stories of each family members to ground historical political events, Asmae shows how each story of each character contains some lie within it. This will be the plot’s leitmotiv that will expose bigger events and slowly focus on the 1981 “bread riots” by inserting the riots into the story’s weave. Through the memories of her mother, father or grandmother, Asmae is not only drawing a portrait of her family but one of Moroccan society as well." The film is produced by Lucie Rego and Pauline Tran Van Lieu of Insight Films.

Participating in Un Certain Regard as well is Iranian filmmakers Ali Asgari's and Alireza Khatami's Terrestrial Verses, which sounds like a take on Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, but also Khatami's previous film Oblivion Verses, and about which I could find very little apart from the film's title and the Iranian filmmakers. I am, of course looking forward to it, even if Asgari's work tends to sometimes skim the surface but perhaps with Khatami's proximity he's added some depth.

In Competition is one of my most anticipated titles of 2023, Algerian-Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz's Firebrand. As previously announced on MIME, Firebrand stars Academy award-winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex-Machina) playing the part of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII. Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts, The Nest) stars opposite Vikander as Henry VIII. Cast members joining the duo include Erin Doherty (The Crown, Chloe) as Anne Askew, Simon Russell Beale (Operation Mincemeat, Benediction) as Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Sam Riley (Rebecca, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) and Eddie Marsan (The Gentlemen, Vice) who will play Thomas and Edward Seymour respectively. Further casting includes Ruby Bentall (Poldark), Bryony Hannah (Call The Midwife) and Maia Jemmett. Olivier award-winning Patsy Ferran will play Princess Mary and Junia Rees will make her acting debut as Princess Elizabeth.

Aïnouz was born in Brazil of a Brazilian mother and Algerian father. His recent project include Invisible Life, which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes in 2019 and documentary Central Airport THF, about Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, which won the Amnesty International award at the Berlinale in 2018. His latest film Mariner Of The Mountains premiered in Cannes 2021 and MIME got to interview him. Firebrand marks the English-language debut of Aïnouz and is produced by Gabrielle Tana (The Dig) of Brouhaha Entertainment and written by Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth (Killing Eve). The film is executive produced by Maria Logan of MBK Productions Ltd and Anne Sheehan. The producers are Tana, who has worked closely with English actor Ralph Fiennes on his directorial projects like Coriolanus and The White Crow, and Carolyn Marks Blackwood. Following her collaboration with Aïnouz on Invisible Life, the director of photography will be Hélène Louvart. The casting director on the project is Nina Gold (The Power of The Dog).

Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan will present his latest title In Competition, this one is called Kuru Otlar Ustune (About Dry Grasses). The film focuses on the experiences of painting teacher Samet who is doing his obligatory service in East Anatolia in a faraway district which he has difficulty adjusting to. Nuri Bilge Ceylan was the Palme d'Or winner in 2014 with his film Winter Sleep, and previously, also in Cannes, he won Grand Jury Prize for both Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Distant and Best Director for Three Monkeys. This latest film was co-financed by the DFI.

Mega auteurs Wim Wenders, Jonathan Glazer, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Ken Loach complete the main Competition line up with their films, while Warwick Thornton's latest The New Boy also world premieres in Un Certain Regard.

Franco-Algerian filmmaker Elias Belkeddar's Omar la Fraise will screen as part of the Midnight Screenings, along with Anurag Kashyap's Kennedy, starring Sunny Leone -- which also holds the unfortunate task of being the only Indian title in the Official Selection this year. Little, if anything at all is known about Kennedy, as the project has been kept under wraps, but this being Kashyap after all, expecting the unexpected is absolutely to be expected.

Of course, the rest of the the lineups In Competition and Un Certain Regard belong to seasoned French filmmakers, including the phenomenal Catherine Breillat, who continues to make films despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 2004. Also in the mix, a lot of Asian filmmakers and Italian helmers. The latest films from Nanni Moretti, in international premiere as the film will be in Italian cinemas on the 20th of April, Marco Bellocchio and Alice Rohrwacher are all slated to world premiere In Competition as is another documentary, bringing the total to a record two non-fiction film for Frémaux, by Chinese doc auteur Wang Bing, titled Jeunesse. American film director Todd Haynes brings his latest, the romantic comedy May December to the Croisette with a cast including Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore (whom we love to see at festivals with her mix of humor and style!) and Alaskan smoldering ice melter -- see what I did there?! -- Charles Melton.

There is even TV on the Croisette this year, in the form of Sam Levinson's The Idol, an HBO production written by Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye, along with Levinson and ex nightclub owner Reza Fahim, and starring Tesfaye, along with Lily-Rose Depp and Troye Sivan. To put this into perspective, the series is a young-singer-meets-cult-leader-slash-experiences-the-underbelly-porn-side of the pop world drama which has already ruffled feathers before it's even watched. The Idol screens Out of Competition, of course.

Finally, while at Qumra this year, I mentored two outstanding projects in the art of press etiquette and am proud to see them in the line up just announced. Both are featured in Un Certain Regard, beginning with Moroccan filmmaker Kamal Lazraq's Les Meutes, or Hounds. Hounds is a haunting and important piece of world cinema filmmaking, and some will draw comparisons with the Cannes film-within-a-film What Just Happened, starring Robert De Niro -- for its use of dogs in one of the initial scenes. For an otherwise quite emotional and somber story, I personally welcomed the bit of lightness this comparison evoked when I watched the film on a screener before meeting the film's producers in Doha.

A still from 'If Only I Could Hibernate'

The other is Mongolian filmmaker Zoljargal Purevdash's first feature If Only I Could Hibernate, which is simply a poem for the big screen. This is one film you won't want to miss, mark my words, so write it in red pen on each and all of your Cannes lists and thank me later.

And last but not least, Franco-Algerian filmmaker Elias Belkeddar's Omar la Fraise will screen as part of the Midnight Screenings, along with Anurag Kashyap's Kennedy, starring Sunny Leone -- which also holds the unfortunate record of being the only Indian title in the official selection this year.

For the complete lineup and info about the Festival de Cannes, check out their website.

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