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Film in the Arab world, especially Lebanon and Egypt, is an old and established art form that is continuing to grow. There are some classics that are a must-watch for any film enthusiast. Here are our picks for the best Arab films of all time.
Directed by Ziad Doueiri and released in 1998, West Beirut is no doubt one of the best Lebanese films ever made. It follows teenagers Tarek, Omar and May in a Beirut ravaged by the Civil War. The boys are preoccupied with finding film for Tarek’s camera, as he makes films. At the time, Beirut was divided into the Muslim part (west) and the Christian part (East). Tarek must cross the divide to get film for his camera. In his adventure, Tarek finds himself in a famous Civil War brothel. The story then moves on from this small adventure to a tragedy during the boys’ coming of age, reflecting their growing awareness.
The film provides an earnest look into childhood during war. Issues like leaving the country, orphanhood, and hypocrisy are tackled. West Beirut won numerous awards, such as the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Award at the Toronto International Film Festival (1998), and the Best First Film at the Carthage Film Festival (1998).
Mother of the Bride (or Imm el Aroussa), 1963, is a comedic interpretation of the interaction between Egyptian parents when their children get married. The story revolves around the struggle of hardworking parents to meet the demands of their seven children while trying to keep up with their daughter’s pending nuptials. The parents struggle to meet the groom’s family’s extravagant requests, although their daughter feels undying love for her soon-to-be husband. The movie is wonderfully comedic as it looks into courtship and marriage customs in 1960s Egypt. It’s a subtle reflection of the social issues of the time, including elitism, star-crossed love, and female empowerment.
Hitchcockian in its suspense The Nightingale’s Prayer, or Doa El-Karawan (1959), is definitely one of the best Egyptian films of all time. Based on a novel by Taha Hussein, the film follows Amna, a girl who witnessed the murder of her older sister by her uncle. Amna moves to her uncle’s home to work as a maid and devises revenge. Her plans begin to fail as an engineer falls in love with her and her uncle proves hard to kill. The Nightingale’s Prayer is an important story of betrayal and love, and the interesting camera work and excellent direction mean it’s no surprise how successful it’s been.
Almost Beckettian in its absurdity and dark humor, Lebanese Where Do We Go Now? (2012) is a reflection of the comical issues of a country divided by a religion-based civil war. Set in an isolated half Muslim, half Christian village, the movie follows the misadventures of women trying to manage the rising tensions between the idiotic men of the village. At one point, the women go as far as to bring in attractive Russian women (a trope common in Lebanon) to distract the men from their arguments. The caricatures are flawlessly captured by director Nadine Labaki, and the film makes a strong statement about the senselessness of war. She reflects a type of female initiative that is not tied to confining Western ideas about women’s empowerment. Where Do We Go Now? premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and won the People’s Choice Award at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival.
The River of Love, or Nahr El Hob (1960), is an Egyptian film based on Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina. Reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in its excess and timeless in its fashion, this film is definitely one of the must-watch films from the Arab world. The curious mix between Russian novel and Egyptian high society makes for a unique adaptation of a highly interpreted classic. The story follows Nawal, the wife of a successful man (and the Anna figure). It shows the struggles of a woman oppressed by a man who feels he is her superior, and the hope she finds in her lover.