Regional films earn recognition at Cannes 2024

Middle Eastern cinema was celebrated at this year’s festival, with entries from Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof and Saudi director Tawfik Alzaidi

Mohammad Rasoulof accepts a Special Prize for The Seed of the Sacred Fig at the Cannes Film Festival. EPA
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The 77th Cannes Film Festival concluded last night with the Palme d’Or going to Sean Baker’s Anora. Emerging talents and seasoned storytellers from the Middle East also received significant accolades.

Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof's The Seed of the Sacred Fig claimed the Special Prize in the main competition. Egyptian documentary filmmakers Nada Riyadh and Ayman El Amir's The Brink of Dreams earned the esteemed L'Oeil d'Or, while Saudi newcomer Tawfik Alzaidi's Norah was celebrated with a Special Mention in the Un Certain Regard category.

Rasoulof fled Iran this month after being sentenced to eight years in prison and is now living in a safe house in Germany. The director has frequently been targeted by Iranian authorities for the nature of his films.

Rasoulof told a press conference after arriving in Cannes: “My only message to Iranian cinema is 'don’t be afraid of intimidation and censorship in Iran'. They’re afraid. They’re afraid and they want us to feel afraid.”

The Seed of the Sacred Fig tells the story of a family man named Iman, played by Missagh Zareh, who has been appointed an investigator for the Iranian authorities, a job that will put him in direct conflict with his wife and two daughters. Running at nearly three hours, the film received a standing ovation at its premiere at the festival, with the audience also cheering lines of dialogue during the screening.

Egyptian documentary The Brink of Dreams, meanwhile, follows the Panorama Barsha Troupe, an all-female group of young Egyptian dancers who all have dreams of pursuing careers in theatre and the arts. The film captures a period of transition, as the protagonists grow from girls into young women.

In an interview with The National, El Amir said: “At the beginning of the film they are free, and they could be anything that they wish to be, but in the end, they are taking decisions that will make them as a person.”

Alzaidi's Norah earned a Special Mention from the Cannes jury in the Un Certain Regard category. The category, established in 1978, runs parallel to the festival's long-running Palme d'Or competition and aims to recognise emerging talent and non-traditional narratives. The nomination of Norah was significant due to it being the first film from Saudi Arabia to be entered in an official selection at the festival.

Set in the 1990s, Norah takes place before the pursuit of art was publicly supported by the kingdom. The story follows 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.

The recognition of these three films underscores the increasing prominence of Middle Eastern cinema on the global stage. The films offer compelling narratives that resonate with audiences worldwide, showcasing the diverse talent and creative vision emerging from the region.

Updated: May 26, 2024, 11:42 AM