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Arab presence in Cannes 2019

Saturday 25 May 2019, by Mydylarama team

The 72nd Cannes Film Festival kicked off on Tuesday with its own brand of pomp and circumstance. Following a strong 2018 edition of the festival for Arab filmmakers, the 2019 line-up proved equally impressive.

In the Un Certain Regard competition - headed by Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, whose Capernaum won the Jury Prize last year - is Adam by Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani. The film, starring the ubiquitous and charismatic Lubna Azabal, is the story of a life-changing encounter between two women; Abla, a widow who runs a bakery from her home that she shares with her 8-year-old daughter, and Samia, who is pregnant. Produced by the very talented filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, this is a moving and poignant story, with fully-fledged characters and strong performances.

A fellow Un Certain Regard nominee is Papicha by Algerian filmmaker Mounia Meddour. This first feature is inspired by the director’s own youthful experiences. Set in 1990s Algiers, the film tells the story of university students Nedjma and Wassila who sneak off campus to go clubbing, and sell handmade clothes amidst increasing violent clashes between Islamists and the government’s security forces. Although some of the characters are somewhat too simply sketched out, powerful performances from the young cast, and an effective sense of intimacy achieved by Meddour’s accomplished camerawork carry the film, which received a standing ovation following its first screening.

Cannes veteran Elia Suleiman is back with It Must Be Heaven, which is in competition for the Palme d’Or. Suleiman’s Divine Intervention had won the Jury Prize and FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes back in 2002. In a similar vein to The Time That Remains, It Must be Heaven is an autobiographical and lyrical exploration of the concept of a homeland. Suleiman travels as far as Paris and New York to find a new place to call home only to realise that he can’t quite find in those places the sense of belonging that he experiences for Palestine. Suleiman has a knack for using humour and stylised shots to highlight the absurdity and futility that govern Palestinian life under occupation. Although, like his previous work, the film stirs feelings of frustrating indignation, Suleiman’s usual pared-down, poetic vision has us leave the screening with added hope and optimism.

In Nada Riyadh’s Critics’ Week entry The Trap (Fakh) a young couple sets off for some alone time in a deserted run down resort. Once there, it becomes obvious that the woman has qualms about their relationship. This is a mostly silent film in which Riyadh’s expert attention to small details and claustrophobic cinematography serve to highlight the woman’s increasing unease.

A rare doc among the lot, For Sama directed by filmmakers Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts and a Cannes Special Screening, captures Al-Kateab’s experience of living in war-torn Aleppo, her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Sama. A very personal film with some truly powerful images. It met with some criticism of being "one-sided", following the screening in Cannes, as it does’t address the actions of Jihadi groups in the area, but it received a largely positive reception.

A Cinefondation competitor, simple, sweet and effective Palestinian short Ambience directed by Wisam Al Jafari, and previously screened as part of the Clermont-Ferrand International programme, follows two ambitious young men trying to record a music sample in their refugee camp to enter in a competition. After a number of failed recordings due to the noisy conditions in the camp, they decide to use the latter to their advantage...

Another Critics’ Week nominee is Algerian filmmaker Amin Sidi-Boumedine’s first feature film, Abou Leila, which follows two Algerian police officers searching the Saharan desert for Abou Leila, a terrorist on the run. Like Papicha, the film is set during the war-ravaged mid-nineties in Algeria, which provides the background for the two friends’ relationship and evolving dynamic. This is a particularly strong debut by Sidi-Boumedine. Although contemplative and lyrical, it never lags. The stunning, sweeping views of the desert inject a dreamlike atmosphere punctuated by clever, tightly-scripted interactions between our two protagonists.

Continuing with Critics’ Week, another contender is Moroccan director Alaa Eddine Aljem’s The Unknown Saint; nominated for the Grand Prize and the Caméra d’Or. A touch slow-moving, thoroughly amusing and beautifully shot, Aljem’s film follows a thief (Younes Bouab) who buries stolen money in a deserted village, disguising the plot as a grave before he is sent to prison. After his time inside, he revisits the spot only to find it’s become a shrine to an unknown saint. Both films are nominated for the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and the Caméra d’Or.

Last but not least, Tlamess, Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim’s second feature film, is in competition in the Directors’ Fortnight selection, a film with at its crux a forest-based encounter between a young soldier who returns home after his mother passes away, and a pregnant woman. A very original, genre-bending effort, whose entrancing soundtrack transports us across the timeless landscapes.

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