Filming the Revolution: Arab Movies at the Oscars

Ruba Asfahani

For the first time in 85 years, three Arab films were nominated in three separate categories at the Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars. On Sunday 2 March 2014, the world held their breath to see if The Square, Omar or Karama Has No Walls would win a coveted Oscar and be thrown into the world of fame and fortune.
Despite the nominations and high expectations, none of the Oscar-nominated Arab films won the golden statuette in 2014. Though not a surprise, it is significant that The Square, Omar and Karama Has No Walls were even nominated. 2013 was an especially full year for one of the nominees, Sara Ishaq, the Scottish-Yemeni director who was nominated for Best Documentary Short for her 26-minute film, Karama Has No Walls, and also released her first feature film, The Mulberry House.

Karama Has No Walls

Ishaq’s entrance into the Oscars could not be better deserved for a woman who really has put the culture of her native Yemen and its revolution back into the ‘limelight’ of the public eye. The revolution, which began in 2011, was part of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, but only lightly covered in the Western media in comparison to Egypt and Libya; this was mainly due to the fact that there were no major clashes or killings in the first few months of the revolution.
In Karama Has No Walls, however, we are thrown deep into the throngs of Yemen’s revolution, on the bloodiest day, Juma’a al-Karama, known as the Friday of Dignity, 18 March 2011. This tragic day led to 45 deaths, three of which were children, and in Ishaq’s film, we follow the stories of two of the boys, Saleem and Anwar, and their fathers, Ghalib and Abdulwahid. Ishaq’s use of real-time footage along with direct interviews makes for harrowing, emotional viewing, with no real upside, no happy ending. Along with her feature The Mulberry House, Ishaq continues to present Yemeni experiences though locals, her family, as well as those who were directly involved in the political clashes.
Although Ishaq was not a winner at the Oscars, it’s vital to reiterate the significance of being the first Yemeni and one of the first female Arab director nominees, alongside the second of the three Arab Oscar nominations, Jehane Noujaim for The Square.

The Square

Nominated in the Best Documentary Feature section of the Oscars, it was always going to be a tough competition given the other candidates included The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, and the winner, 20 Feet From Stardom. However, The Square has picked up a huge following given its Kickstarter campaign and being released early on Netflix, attracting a huge audience and waves of attention.
The protagonists of The Square are charming (revolution singer Ramy Assam), dedicated (actor Khalid Abdalla), passionate (Ahmed Hassan) and complicated (Magdy Ashour). Throughout the documentary, the viewer meanders from the very start of the revolution in Egypt on Tahrir Square, through to the Muslim Brotherhood being voted in, and the second biggest revolution on Tahrir Square, when the people of Egypt wanted to get rid of the Brotherhood once again.

Aptly timed in its release as Egypt is never far from the public’s focal point in the West, with the ongoing elections and clashes, The Square is a perfect film to understand from start to finish what exactly happened in Egypt over the last three years.


Last but not least is Omar, the newest film by renowned Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad. The talented director is the only Arab to be nominated for an Oscar twice; in 2006, his film Paradise Now was also up for Best Foreign Film. It is hard to explain on paper how much you need to see this film. From start to finish, the viewers are left teetering on the edge of their seats, waiting for the incredible ending.

Being left open-mouthed and gasping for words is not something that happens often with film, but with Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar it’s impossible not to be. Viewers follow the story of Omar who struggles with young love, difficult life-long friendships, and the Israeli police force. Abu-Assad hired young, freshly graduated actors for the main roles including Adam Bakri who comes from the long line of brilliant Palestinian actors (brother Saleh and father Mohammad), newcomers Leem Lubany and Samer Bisharat. Apart from the romance, the second, more important relationship in the film is played out with unending drama between Bakri’s character Omar and Agent Rami, played by established American-born actor Waleed Zuaiter, whose character flits between Arabic and Hebrew, and between kind-heartedness and wickedness towards Omar.
Having sold out during the London Film Festival in October 2013, it has yet to be released in the UK, but is currently being shown in the United States. It’s only a matter of time that this thrilling film will be picked up and shown to the masses. All three films were in extremely tough categories this year, with incredible competition. It is not a surprise that these films didn’t win, but it is not this that audiences need to focus on.
Not only did these films get nominated in the world’s most important night for film, not only did they break records for the Arab film industry, not only did Ishaq and Noujaim break boundaries for Arab women; they have provided the global audience with reminders of the past three years of the ‘Arab Spring’, the revolutions and, ultimately, that the Middle East should be taken very seriously when it comes to its cultures.

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