10 Must-See Films from the World's Strictest Regimes

Rainer Mesi

In countries laden with censorship laws and strict regimen, many artists, performers and filmmakers still choose to defy the status quo and create something that changes minds both within and without their nation’s borders. These heroic artists often go unnoticed by the wider media however, so we check out the most remarkable films to emerge from countries with authoritarian regimes, heavy censorship or without the rule of law.

The White Meadows (2009, Iran)

A film that is as surreal as it is saddening, The White Meadows is the work of the famous Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, whose previous films such as Iron Island have landed him in considerable trouble with the Iranian authorities. Rasoulof’s 2009 film is a much more subtle take on the troubles of Iranian society and its visual style is heavily influenced by magical realism. The film’s scenes are hauntingly beautiful as the film follows the protagonist Rahmat on his journey of collecting the residents of a handful of desert islands. This is a powerful film and should be savored – the symbolism is not glaringly evident but when identified, is both mesmerizing and universal to mankind.

The Flower Girl (1972 North Korea)

The Asian totalitarian state is infamous for producing numerous propaganda films during the reign of Kim Jong-Il and this tradition began in 1972 with The Flower Girl. Directed by none other than the late leader, the film helped him secure a good standing by his father’s side and demonstrate the power of film as state apparatus. The Flower Girl is a fascinating watch and will provide some insight into the foundation of the North Korean psyche.

Strawberry and Chocolate (1993, Cuba)

Strawberry and Chocolate is a remarkable Cuban classic dealing with difficult topics in the post-cold war era of the Caribbean nation. Following the growing friendship of two diametrically opposed Cubans, this film is an timeless story about human compassion and understanding. The film is a masterpiece, especially considering that there still exists considerable obstacles for local filmmakers. All films in Cuba are approved or disapproved by the authorities before release or broadcast, which has made anything critical of the regime unlikely to reach a wider audience.

They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain (2012, Myanmar)

Myanmar is opening up, but the scars of its decades-long isolation can still be felt today, even with the rapid increase in capital and population. Lifting the Curtain offers a unique look into Myanmar just before the thaw. The film uses interviews with anonymous locals and plenty of intriguing clandestine footage of extraordinary life in Myanmar under a brutal and oppressive regime. This documentary offers a fascinating glimpse of Myanmar that, for some, is disappearing fast and for others not fast enough.

Wadjda (2012, Saudi Arabia)

Saudi Arabia’s film masterpiece Wadjda is a story of a little girl who defies convention and decides to purchase herself a bicycle. With seemingly everything against her, Wadjda tells a heartfelt story of a young girl setting your own path in society and defying set rules. A beautiful piece coming out of one of the most conformist countries in the Middle East, the film is a must see and should not be missed by anybody interested in Arabic cinema.

Wilaya (2012, Western Sahara)

Western Sahara is not a nation state, in fact it is the only colonial territory left on the African continent. Administered by Morocco, the status and rights of the Sahrawi local people is in constant doubt as they struggle for national independence and international recognition. Wilaya is a beautiful film depicting the struggle of the Sahrawi through the eyes of someone who has grown up in Spain but identifies with Western Sahara. This mingling and fusing of different values and cultures is interesting, but Wilaya is often quiet and meditative and much is left for the audience to interpret. The silence leaves room for viewers to take in the serenity of the Sahara captured so well on film.

Dadaab Stories (Dadaab/Kenya/Somalia)

Just east of the Kenya Somali border lies Dadaab, a special territory – a nation within a nation. Dadaab is a refugee camp filled with generations of people who have fled from the tumultuous neighboring Somalia since 1991, when the civil war first broke out. For over two decades the camp existed and managed to create a culture of its own. The FilmAid project Dadaab Stories is part of an effort to empower grassroots filmmaking in by Dadaab residents as the most powerful and effective means to bring the reality of Dadaab to the screen and into more people’s consciousness. The short documentaries filmed by Dadaab locals are available for viewing on the Dadaab Stories homepage.

Kinshasa Kids (2013, Democratic Republic of Congo)

Set in the capital of The Democratic Republic of Congo, Kinshasa Kids tells the story of a group of Congolese children accused of witchcraft, banished from their homes and forced to fend for themselves on the streets of the African metropolis. In reality, mistreatment of children is a serious problem in the Congo and thousands of children have become homeless through similar circumstances. Congo is no longer a strictly authoritarian regime, but the perilous situation in which the country presently finds itself in makes it important for local films to achieve wider public viewership.

Syria: Across The Lines (2013, Syria)

Syria is in a state of civil war and anything longer than short clips and news footage is very difficult to extract from the war-torn country. Olly Lambert has however, managed to produce a vivid and balanced documentary on the effects of the Syrian civil war on the country and its people. Divided into two, this film explores both sides of the conflict and offers a refreshingly honest look into the most brutal conflict of recent years.

Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (2014, Belarus)

With the 2014 crisis in the eastern regions of Ukraine, there has also been more focus on the situation in neighboring Belarus. The country’s struggle for fuller economic prosperity has been impeded several times by its authoritarian regime and lack of human rights. With very little exposure in the media, Belarus’ artists are heavily censored and works critical of the regime are few and far between. Dangerous Acts is a brave statement documenting the resistance movement happening both on stage and off. A must-watch for anyone interested in the situation in the European Eastern region.

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