The Toronto International Film Festival – or Tiff, if you prefer – is back. After last year’s hybrid version, the 2021 event is promising more in-person screenings, which will be a relief to all, as the festival attempts to stage a more normal event in the era of Covid-19.
The prestigious Canadian festival, seen by Hollywood studios as a major launch pad into awards season, will open on September 9 with the world premiere of the musical Dear Evan Hansen, based on the Broadway show. But look further and there is an impressive selection of movies from the Arab region – be they shorts, dramas or documentaries.
Once again offering proof of the filmmaking talent in the Middle East, it’s a great way for these filmmakers to take their first steps on to the global stage or, in some cases, remind us how good they are.
After making his 2017 Hollywood effort The Mountain Between Us with Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad heads homeward for Huda’s Salon.
Based on real events, this is being described as a “feminist thriller”. A young woman, Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), married to a jealous husband, heads to a salon in Bethlehem for a rejuvenating haircut only to find her world turned upside down when the owner of the establishment (Manal Awad) blackmails her.
Playing in the festival’s Platform strand, it also features Ali Suliman, the star of Assad’s 2005 Oscar-nominated breakthrough movie Paradise Now. As Assad puts it: “Seldom do I find a story inspired by real events that also contains contradictions. Huda’s Salon is full of contradictions that work together in a precise way.”
'Costa Brava, Lebanon'
With a body of work that ranges from television to shorts and fashion films, Lebanese writer-director Mounia Akl makes her feature debut with Costa Brava, Lebanon. Impressively, it’s been selected for the Venice Film Festival and Tiff, where it will play in the Contemporary World Cinema strand.
Actress and filmmaker Nadine Labaki (Capernaum) returns to the screen alongside Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri (The Present) to play a couple who leave Beirut in search of the good life, only to find the government has decreed a landfill site be situated right next to their tranquil new rural home.
Co-written with Spanish filmmaker Clara Roquet (El Adios), this film isn’t the first time Akl has tackled pollution. Her 2016 effort Submarine also used Lebanon’s waste crisis as a jumping-off point.
'Trumpets in the Sky'
Rakan Mayasi is an independent writer-director-producer who was born in Germany, but currently lives in Lebanon. He previously made Bonbone, a short about the plight of jailed Palestinians smuggling sperm out of prison cells to conceive children, which premiered in Toronto in 2017.
His latest short film, Trumpets in the Sky, will be screened as part of Tiff’s Short Cuts programme. The narrative follows a young Syrian girl working in Lebanon’s potato fields whose life radically changes on one fateful day.
Mayasi received his training at the Asian Film Academy, from Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016. So it’ll be interesting to see how influenced Trumpets in the Sky is by Kiarostami’s inimitable style. As Mayasi puts it, describing his attitude to cinema: “I do not believe in perfection. I actually think the idea of perfection boring because imperfections take us closer to the humanity in it.”
Jordanian filmmaker Darin J Sallam follows a series of award-winning short films with her feature debut Farha. It's playing in Tiff’s Discovery section, designed to showcase “directors to watch”, which feels very apt in this case.
Set in 1948 in Palestine, this tale inspired by true events shows Farha, 14, left behind in her abandoned village as war erupts in her homeland. Watching events unfold from a locked cellar, she must reconcile her dreams of getting an education with the more urgent and practical need to survive. Karam Tahar plays Farha, while Ali Suliman, who is also in Huda’s Salon, co-stars.
Isabelle Mecattaf, who is from Beirut, studied film at New York University, and will now see her second-year film, Beity, premiere in Tiff's Short Cuts programme.
Already the recipient of The Black Family Film Prize for Second Year Curricular Short Films, the story takes place across one anxiety-fuelled day in a wealthy Beirut household and it’s been described by the Tiff team as a “moving rumination on the pain felt by parents of grown children seeking better lives far from home”.
Mecattaf is certainly an intriguing new voice in cinema. As she said in a recent interview: “How do you take everything that’s happening around you, that perhaps makes you angry, and turn it into a story that’s compelling, and entertaining and enjoyable?”
'The Devil’s Drivers'
The documentary, shot over the course of eight years by co-directors Daniel Carsenty and Mohammed Abugeth, looks utterly fascinating.
Set to be unveiled in the Tiff Docs strand, it chronicles two Palestinian Bedouin cousins as they smuggle undocumented workers into Israel. These men, “young gangsters, modern-day versions of Robin Hood”, as the directors call them, struggle through unbearable hardships.
Put this together with “the intensity of a 1970s chase film”, as Tiff describes it, and The Devil’s Drivers promises to be a mesmerising experience. Frankfurt-born Carsenty is joined by Abugeth, who was born in Jerusalem, and has since studied and worked in Berlin.
'The Gravedigger’s Wife'
Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s poetic romance The Gravedigger’s Wife made its successful bow in Critics' Week at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and will now play in Tiff’s Contemporary World Cinema section. Comparisons have already been made to the work of two-time Cannes winners the Dardenne brothers, who are famed for their naturalistic approach.
Set in Africa’s Djibouti City, the film stars Omar Abdi as Guled, a gravedigger whose lowly work pays nowhere near enough to afford the $5,000 hospital fee required for his wife, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), to receive a life-saving operation to treat chronic kidney disease.
Ahmed, who was born in Mogadishu but lives in Finland, marks his feature debut with this film, after making several shorts, including 2017’s The Night Thief.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from Thursday, September 9 to Saturday, September 18