The MIME Team's pick of top MENA films in 2021

Hailing from Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the USA and even Israel, our choices included feature narratives, documentaries and shorts, some already released some awaiting distribution.
The MIME Team's pick of top MENA films in 2021

It is coming up on the end of the year and while we await what 2022 will bring, we at Moving Image Middle East wanted to share our favourite films, what we really loved watching in 2021. Many may not have made it to the theatres, and some were presented in festivals as far back as 2019, but this list includes some gems you should put on your must-watch list.

And to those who say there just aren't enough women filmmakers to allow for a 50/50 choice in festival line-ups and lists... Well, we found six titles directed by women we loved out of eleven listed. You do the math.

Of course, the following is a rundown, in no particular order.

The Sea Ahead by Ely Dagher

Ely Dagher's feature debut after his award winning short Waves '98 is stunning. MIME's Mark Adams said it skillfully captured the "underlying beauty to the city which at times appears haunted by its vibrant past." Deep within its story of a woman returning home to Beirut, lies the collective emotions of an entire people, in the land that is today torn apart by years of battles and corrupt politics. Watching The Sea Ahead is like coming to terms with our own sadness, walking that razor thin line that separates us from disaster at any given time. Our recent times have certainly proven how close to the precipice we all are! Yet unreleased in cinemas but having made the festival circuit after premiering in Cannes in July, Dagher's film is one we await with bated breath -- a second, even a third viewing are necessary.

Read Mark's review and read his interview with the filmmaker from Cannes. The Sea Ahead (pictured in the header) is yet to be released and is traveling the festival circuit.

Costa Brava Lebanon by Mounia Akl

A film has us at "hello" when it stars Nadine Labaki and Saleh Bakri as husband and wife. The courage to assemble a cast as grandiose as that for a first feature is what makes Mounia Akl a talent to watch. She is spot on in defining the problems of today's Lebanon, without taking her audience away from the narrative of a family in crisis -- despite their appearance. Set in a dystopian present when garbage takes over the world, much like Ely Dagher's powerful oeuvre, Akl's spellbinding film helps to define a generation of Lebanese and finds a way to scream their angst to the world. MIME's Nina Rothe interviewed Akl, along with Bakri and Labaki and contributing critic Jay Weissberg reviewed the film when it premiered in Venice.

Costa Brava Lebanon is currently traveling the festival circuit.

A Hero by Asghar Farhadi

It's not by chance that Asghar Farhadi's film is on the shortlist for this year's Academy Awards. It's powerful and holds a mirror up to us as a worldwide society so involved in social media and so far removed from living real life. Farhadi has been accused of being Iran's propaganda machine and he threatened on Instagram that he would pull the film from being submitted to the Oscars just to prove how unfair that accusation is. Thankfully, he hasn't and there is a great chance the film will advance to the final titles in competition for the Best International Feature Film award. We watched the film at this year's Ajyal Film Festival and found it absorbing and utterly poignant.

A Hero is in select theatres at the moment and will be available on Amazon Prime in late January.

Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Another film making it on a shortlist for this year's Oscars is Flee, and it's a documentary, albeit one that uses animation to convey many of its points. A first-person account of an Afghani man, Amin Nawabi who, as he readies to marry his husband, shares his story for the first time about his hidden past and fleeing his home country to Denmark as a refugee. Mark Adams had a wonderful review of the film from its Sundance premiere.

We hope that now that the film is on the Oscar shortlist, it will be made available to audiences.

1982 by Oualid Mouaness

1982 is the film that keeps on going. Initially premiered in 2019 at the Toronto Film Festival, the film didn't get the attention it deserved the first time around. Then the pandemic hit and it seemed Oualid Mouaness' touching coming of age film about a boy trying to find the courage to talk to a girl as war threatens to explode all around them was bound to be forever forgotten, maybe reappearing on a streaming platform somewhere down the line. But Mouaness is no ordinary filmmaker and with his producing background, he found a new model of distribution and sold his film to several territories, including France, Germany and a few South American countries -- with more to come. The release in France was an outstanding success and we featured the film's journey on MIME.

The film is slated for a US release in 2022 and has been in French cinemas for four weeks now.

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon by Ana Lily Amirpour

There isn't anything Ana Lily Amirpour touches that doesn't turn to gold. From her fashion videos to films like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch, she marches to a beat of her own and in cinema, that means entertainment like no other. Mona Lisa is no exception and watching it is the cinematic equivalent of having a lavish meal, in great company, in a city you've always wanted to visit. Everything is there for you, for your enjoyment and at the end of it, you'll feel like nothing is impossible in life. Ah, yes, because Amirpour's vision is never heavy handed or too filling, she always leaves you wanting for more! Nina wrote about the film's premiere in Venice.

At the moment, the film is slated for release in Sweden and Denmark, with more territories to come.

Don't Get Too Comfortable by Shaima Al-Tamimi

Shaima Al-Tamimi Don't Get Too Comfortable is a short film, yet one long on emotions and themes. The idea of our parents' path being something that changes our own destiny is one that is both timeless and timely. In her film, the young Yemeni filmmaker based in Doha, asks the question to her late grandfather through a cinematic letter -- what would her life be like had he gone a different route? And both the answers, which are all going to be discovered within the viewer, as well as the resulting film are magical and unexpected. Nina interviewed the filmmaker after the film's world premiere in Venice.

Abu Saddam by Nadine Khan

Egyptian cinema has to always be part of the mix in a year-end best list. But we'll forgo both Mohamed Diab's Amira and Omar El Zohairy's Feathers as they've gotten their share of attention, for a lesser talked about title by Nadine Khan. Abu Saddam is a road trip with a twist, fantastically acted and beautifully shot. It's everything one could want in a film and more. Yet there is nothing grand or self-important in its story and the filmmaker aptly kept the film's timing short and the dialogue full.

Her chat with Nina from the film's premiere at this year's Cairo Film Fest proves her quiet genius.

The Perfect Candidate by Haifaa al-Mansour

This was another film that premiered back in 2019 and actually saw theatrical distribution in the US in late winter of 2020. Haifaa al-Mansour can be credited for all the great things that have happened cinematically in Saudi Arabia, after the release of her first feature Wadjda. Cinemas would not have come back to the Kingdom if it wasn't for the attention her film received and her follow up in the Region has enough courage, as well as a not-in-your-face powerful message to make it worth watching. We reviewed the film and interviewed al-Mansour to coincide with the US release of The Perfect Candidate.

The film is available to watch on a few streaming platforms.

Ahed's Knee by Nadav Lapid

If Nadav Lapid's film had been the Israeli submission to the Academy Awards race this year, the country would see a nomination and could possibly walk away with an Oscar. But alas, Ahed's Knee is too raw, too powerful, too critical of the cultural establishment in the filmmaker's homeland and not getting nominated for Lapid made it a bittersweet moment. He confessed to MIME that getting nominated would have negated the idea and themes of his provocative film, but that he still felt disappointed when his film didn't garner any awards at the Ophirs, the Israeli version of the Oscars and how the submitted film is chosen each year.

Ahed's Knee is definitely a film to watch and MIME's Nina told her reasons why in this piece here. The film is still making the festivals round.

Scales by Shahad Ameen

A dystopian tale of a young girl whose fate is to become a mermaid but who instead yearns to be one of the boys, set in a barren landscape made nearly inhabitable by man's carelessness. Yes please! The fact that the film is by Saudi woman filmmaker to watch Shahad Ameen only adds to the cinematic cake here.

Scales was released in the US in the summer of 2020 and was Saudi Arabia’s Official Oscar® entry for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Academy Awards. Read Mark Adams' review here and an interview with the filmmaker conducted by Nina here.

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