Between MUBI, Amazon Prime and Netflix, there is a lot to watch from the MENA region. Here are just five titles (ok, six really) that, once present in your browsing history, will allow for more discoveries to come. In this case, bring on the algorithms!
Caramel (2007) by Nadine Labaki
Of course, we at Moving Image Middle East are partial to the Lebanese multi-nominated filmmaker. But Caramel (pictured above) really is the film that keeps on giving. Several (male) filmmakers have attempted, or will in the near future attempt to replicate the powerful all-women in a beauty salon formula, to no avail. Because Labaki and her work are one-of-a-kind, un-replicable. The story of a woman, Layale (played by Labaki) who runs a beauty salon, where caramel is used to wax her female clientele, the story has so many angles and facets that it is truly impossible to catch it all in one go. You can actually watch the film for free on YouTube with ads.
Wadjda (2012) by Haifaa al-Mansour
From one exceptional woman filmmaker to another. Haifaa al-Mansour's debut feature about a young girl who wants to ride a bike like her male friend was famously shot from the back of a van, in her native Saudi Arabia, thus bringing about change in the Kingdom. Her latest The Perfect Candidate will be released in the U.S. later this month and in an exclusive upcoming interview with MIME, al-Mansour confirmed that she indeed shot it on the ground, out of the van -- along with her entire crew. That's perhaps the reason why film in the Region is so important, because it's often a catalyst for innovation. Watch the film on Netflix.
The Band's Visit (2007) by Eran Kolirin
Almost fifteen years have passed since this film about an Egyptian police band visiting Israel got famously "disinvited" from a festival in the Gulf. And yet, what a difference those years have made! Not only are Israeli tourists now welcomed in the UAE, but Image Nation Abu Dhabi has forged a partnership with the Israeli Film Fund, partly responsible for financing this film. Cinema is able to eventually tear down the divides that politics and religion place in its way, opening a path for cultural understanding. The Band's Visit stars an all-star cast of wonderful actors from MENA, including Saleh Bakri, Ronit Elkabetz and Sasson Gabai in what is really a story from the heart about humanity -- no matter what your language or origin is.
Taxi (2015) by Jafar Panahi
Imprisoned, barred from traveling abroad and showing his films to international audiences, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has remained undeterred in his film making efforts. All his film since his conviction, for causes that remain incomprehensible to non-bureaucratic sources, have been screened in international A-list festivals from Berlin to Cannes -- and have won multiple awards. Taxi is probably one of Panahi's best, among his innumerable masterpieces, and like many of his films, leaves the viewer with a sense of blurred reality. Is what happened staged by the crafty filmmaker or are we seeing something true capture on the big screen? Taxi is wonderful, a great introduction to Panahi's work and available to stream on Amazon Prime.
Theeb (2014) by Naji Abu Nowar
Nominated for the 88th Academy Awards, for Best Foreign Film (that's what the category was called at the time), the film scored many first for Jordan, where it was filmed. The story of an orphaned Bedouin boy, who manages to find his way despite having faced enormous tragedy, Theeb features an important third character -- the Wadi Ram desert, where the film was shot. Using non-professional actors and featuring exceptional cinematography Theeb is a good way to learn about the many allegiances that make that part of the Middle East what it is today. Free to stream on Amazon Prime.
And finally, an extra credit short film from a woman filmmaker we love. We said five films -- well it's actually six.
Under the Hat (2017) by Amal Al-Agroobi
Emirati filmmaker Amal Al-Agroobi has a way of getting to the heart of the matter. Her debut short Half Emirati talked about the discrimination faced by young men and women who were born from mixed-culture marriages where one parent was hails from the UEA. Under the Hat instead tackles the problems faced by immigrants to the country, who must remain employed in order to retain their visa privileges. Under the Hat is an easy to watch, well interpreted narrative short just under 15 minutes telling the story of a Muezzin who loses his voice and finds a heavy metal singer to replace him, while trying to avoid losing his visa as well. Watch it on Amazon Prime.