Venice Film Festival 2023 to spotlight films and talents from the Mena region

Despite the absence of big stars, regional names will be well represented across features, shorts and juries

A still from Behind the Mountains by Tunisian auteur Mohamed Ben Attia. Photo: Luxbox
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The autumn movie calendar is upon us.

Last week, the Venice Film Festival unveiled its main selection, with exciting new movies from Michael Mann (Ferrari), David Fincher (The Killer), Yorgos Lanthimos (Poor Things) and Sofia Coppola (Priscilla) - all of which are likely to grab headlines.

Even though red carpet premieres will lack the usual star power – owing to the ongoing Sag-Aftra strike, which means actors will be absent from promotional duties – it’s still a hugely promising line-up.

Better yet, the Mena region is again well represented across the official selection, with both features and shorts set to play, and jury members set to confer.

Among them, Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, whose Oscar-nominated The Man Who Sold His Skin first played in Venice. This year Ben Hania returns to sit on the Horizons (Orizzonti) jury, a strand that prides itself on selecting cutting-edge fare.

Meanwhile, the Luigi De Laurentiis debut film award jury includes Moroccan actor, director and screenwriter Faouzi Bensaidi, whose recent film Deserts played at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The main jury is headed by Damian Chazelle (whose La La Land and First Man premieres played in Venice) and features the likes of veteran filmmakers Jane Campion and Martin McDonagh.

In the Horizons section, Tunisian auteur Mohamed Ben Attia will present his new film Behind The Mountains. It reunites him with Majd Mastoura, who starred in his 2016 debut Hedi and won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin Film Festival.

Backed by the Red Sea Fund, this six-country co-production (including Saudi Arabia and Qatar) is a father-and-son story that leans heavily into fantasy. Mastoura plays Rafik who, after spending four years in jail, has a sole ambition: to prove his ability to fly. The poster – Rafik holding his boy mid-air – suggests this will be a movie that delves into magic realism.

Also in Horizons is City of Wind, a Mongolian drama that received funding from the Doha Film Institute. Originally titled Ze – the name of the main protagonist – the film is directed by Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir, who has already garnered acclaim on the festival circuit for her short films Mountain Cat and Snow In September.

Set in the Yurt districts of Ulaanbaatar, it stars young Mongolian actors Tergel Bold-Erdene and Nomin-Erdene Ariunbyamba. The story follows Ze, 17, an awkward teenager who is in training with a powerful shaman, but finds his attentions distracted when he meets a young girl with a congenital heart defect. Intriguingly, despite Purev-Ochir’s relative inexperience, she has collected some major behind-the-scenes talent around her to make the film, including editor Matthieu Taponier, who cut the Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Son of Saul.

In the Horizons shorts section, Lebanese filmmaker and photographer Leila Basma will unveil her work, Sea Salt. Basma, who divides her time between Beirut and Prague, has already made several shorts, as well as the documentary Dance With Me, about her uncle, who fled her family to become a belly dancer in Los Angeles.

The theme of flight also runs through Sea Salt. Set on a hot summer’s day on the southern coast of Lebanon, it stars Nathalie Issa as Nayla, 17, who is faced with the typical dilemma that many Lebanese youngsters must contend with: to leave or stay. Co-starring Georges Matar and Farid Chawki, this looks set to be an intriguing tale of female empowerment.

Another Lebanese short featuring in this strand is Wissam Charaf’s Et si le soleil plongeait dans l’océan de nues (And if the sun plunged into the ocean of clouds). The Beirut-born director won Best Film in the Venice Days section last year for his drama Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous, and makes a swift return here with a story set in Lebanon on a construction site.

The short follows Raed, a security guard, who must prevent pedestrians from accessing the seafront. While the horizon is increasingly obstructed by building work, Raed enjoys some unique encounters.

Iranian animated short, In The Shadow of the Cypress, will also be among those in the selection. Co-directed by Hossein Molayemi and Shirin Sohani, this 20-minute work is produced by the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults and tells of an ex-captain suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Living with his daughter by the sea, theirs is a taxing existence until, one day, something unexpected happens and their lives change forever. The film marks the reunion of Molayemi and Sohani, who previously worked together on Molayemi’s 2017 short Run Rostam Run.

Always a popular strand, the Venice Classics section this year includes restorations of such seminal works as William Friedkin’s horror hit The Exorcist and Terrence Malick’s beautiful Days of Heaven.

Among them is the Iranian film, Saz Dahani (Harmonica). Made in 1974, it’s the work of Amir Naderi, one of the most influential Persian filmmakers of his generation. A Venice regular – his 2008 film Vegas: Based On A True Story played there too – Naderi’s Saz Dahani follows a young boy, who receives the titular musical instrument as a present, only to find it causes wonder and envy among his friends.

Away from the main selection, Venice Immersive once again promises to take viewers into new and engaging worlds. The XR – Extended Reality – section of the festival is made up of virtual reality-style shorts from around the globe. The big hitters include a project centred around the famed British DJ, entitled Fatboy Slim – Eat, Sleep, VR, Repeat; and Wallace & Gromit in the Grand Getaway, an Aardman Animations dip into VR with their most famous characters.

Playing in competition too is Peupler (Populate), a French-Lebanon co-production directed by Maya Mouawad and Cyril Laurier. An immersive interactive room, it’s designed to raise “awareness of ways in which we can cohabitate as humans”.

Also featured is a Palestine-Qatar-Spain co-production, Remember This Place 31°20’46’’N 34°46’46’’E. Created by Spanish artist Patricia Echeverria Liras, the film is said to be about Bedouin women exploring memories. It’s yet another fascinating work in a festival that keeps on giving.

The Venice Film Festival runs until September 9th.

Updated: August 01, 2023, 3:02 AM