A history of Arab cinema at Cannes Film Festival, from Youssef Chahine to Nadine Labaki

The region's presence has been felt since the festival began in 1946

Palme d'Or winner, Algerian film director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, on stage with actress Ann-Margret, German director Werner Herzog and actor Vittorio Gassman at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975. Getty Images
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Arab cinema has had a presence at the Cannes Film Festival since its inception in 1946.

Names such as Youssef Chahine, Nadine Labaki and Kaouther Ben Hania have walked under flashing camera lights to stand shoulder to shoulder with cinema greats and represent the Arab world and its rich cultural output.

As the 77th festival kicks off, here's a timeline of Arab participation at one of the world's most prestigious film events.

The beginning

A year after the end of the Second World War, the first Cannes Film Festival took place in 1946, from September 20 to October 5. The festival’s jury was headed by French historian Georges Huisman and had representatives from every participating country. That included Egypt, represented by actor and filmmaker Youssef Wahbi.

Egyptian film Dunia took part in the Grand Prix competition, going up against films by Jean Cocteau, Charles Vidor and Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Mohammed Karim, the drama starred Faten Hamama and Suleiman Naguib.

Of the 40 films competing for the Grand Prix, 11 were chosen for the prize. Dunia wasn’t one of them, but it did manage to underline the level of sophistication and quality Egyptian cinema was producing at the time.

Egypt returned in 1956 with two films. Youssef Chahine’s Son of The Nile and Ahmed Badrakhan’s A Night of Love were on a list of 36 films competing for the Grand Prix.

They went up against films by established names such as Orson Welles, Vittorio De Sica and Luis Bunuel. Othello by Welles and Two Cents Worth of Hope by Renato Castellani won the top prize that year.

Making a mark

But it was Algerian filmmaker Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina who first won at Cannes with The Winds of the Aures in 1967. Starring Aicha Adjouri and Mohamed Chouikh, the film won the award for Best First Work.

Lakhdar-Hamina won again in 1975 when Chronicle of the Years of Fire bagged the coveted Palme d'Or. Set against the backdrop of Algeria's struggle for independence, the film captivated audiences with its raw emotion and unflinching portrayal of a nation in turmoil. The film starred Yorgo Voyagis and Hadj Smaine Mohamed Seghir.

Maroun Baghdadi's Out of Life made history again at Cannes in 1991 by winning the Short Film Palme d'Or. Capturing Beirut's war-torn landscape, the film showed the emotions and struggles of its characters amid the chaos of civil conflict.

A long absence and a welcome return

But after Baghdadi's win, films from the Arab world were absent from Cannes. It was Palestinian director Elia Sulieman’s Divine Intervention that broke the streak, when it was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or in 2002. A surreal dark comedy set in Nazareth, Divine Intervention follows the lives of a man and his girlfriend, separated by the West Bank barrier.

The Palme d’Or that year went to Roman Polanski’s tragic Second World War film The Pianist starring Adrian Brody.

Four years later in 2006 Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb’s film Days of Glory was entered. It transports viewers to French-occupied North Africa in 1943, chronicling the plight of North African men recruited to fight against the Nazis, their valour juxtaposed against the discrimination they face within the French army.

That year, Sulieman returned Cannes as a jury member, headed by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. The Palme d’Or went to The Wind That Shakes the Barley by Ken Loach.

Lebanese filmmaker Labaki made waves at the Camera d’Or competition in 2007 with Caramel. The film delves into the lives of five Lebanese women, their struggles and their triumphs while working in a Beirut beauty salon.

The jury that year included Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako and was headed by British filmmaker Stephen Frears. The winner of the Palme d’Or was 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days by Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu.

The next year, Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir’s film Salt of This Sea was included in the list of Un Certain Regard, a Cannes sidebar. The film follows Soraya, a Palestinian immigrant from Brooklyn as she embarks on a journey to reclaim her family's frozen assets in Jaffa.

Winning streak

Arab cinema returned in 2015 when Ely Dagher's Waves '98 won the Short Film Palme d'Or. The film showcased the talent and creativity of a new generation of filmmakers with its bold visuals and evocative storytelling.

A year later, Houda Benyamina's Divines took Cannes by storm, winning the Camera d'Or for Best First Feature Film. The film's gritty realism and powerful performances shined a light on the struggles of youth in the suburbs of Paris, earning Benyamina widespread acclaim and recognition.

In 2017, Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s film Beauty and the Dogs was nominated in the Un Certain Regard category. The film is an indictment of institutional corruption in Tunisia.

A year later in 2018, Labaki returned to the festival with Capernaum, a powerful tale of poverty and resilience set in the streets of Beirut. The film's heartbreaking story and unforgettable performances earned Labaki the Jury Prize and cemented her status as one of Arab cinema's most talented directors.

Labaki returned as jury member of Un Certain Regard the following year, when Moroccan director Maryam Touzani's debut film Adam was one of the selected films.

For the Palme d’Or, Sulieman retuned to the competition with his film It Must Be Heaven. Also competing was Tunisian film director Abdellatif Kechiche with his film Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo. The top prize went to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.

In 2020, Jimmy Keyrouz's film Broken Keys premiered at the festival, offering a perspective on the struggles of Lebanon's youth amid political turmoil. Ayten Amin's film Souad entered the Newcomers competition that year, its honest depiction of womanhood and sisterhood resonating with audiences.

Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch's film Casablanca Beats competed at the festival in 2021. It follows a group of young musicians as they navigate the challenges of pursuing their passion in a society marked by social and economic inequality.

In 2022, two Arab films entered the Un Certain Regard category – Touzani’s The Blue Caftan from Morocco and Maha Haj’s Mediterranean Fever from Palestine.

Last year in 2023, Kaouther Ben Hania’s docudrama Four Daughters competed for a Palme d’Or, losing out to Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall. That year, in the Un Certain Regard section, there were two regional films: Mohamed Kordofani’s Goodbye Julia from Sudan and Asmae El Moudir’s The Mother of All Lies from Morocco.

A new wave?

Saudi Arabia will make history this year with Tawfik Alzaidi's Norah becoming the first film from the country to be selected for the Un Certain Regard section, along with 19 other entries from around the world.

Set in the 1990s, Norah tells the story of a failed artist turned schoolteacher, played by Yaqoub Alfarhan, who helps a young girl, played by Maria Bahrawi, realise her potential in an oppressive rural environment.

Saudi Arabia, through its Red Sea Film Foundation, has had a strong relationship with the Cannes festival since 2018. Last year, six Saudi-backed films were shown, including the opener Jeanne Du Barry, starring Johnny Depp. But they were not made by Saudi or Gulf filmmakers.

Updated: May 15, 2024, 6:29 AM