British Film Institute brings Arab movies to London's cinemas: here are 5 to watch

A new programme of contemporary films from the Middle East

L'Homme qui avait vendu sa peau / The Man Who Sold His Skin. *NO CREDITS*

The British Film Institute hopes to “challenge the stereotypical” by bringing a stream of films from the Middle East to London's cinemas.

The festival, titled The Time is New: Selections from Contemporary Arab Cinema, will screen "exciting and daring" films made between 2019 and 2021 at BFI Southbank in south London until October.

“These films weave personal narratives into broader questions and show the lyricism, humanity and poetry of everyday Arab life,” said a BFI representative.

The programme has been curated by Youssef Shazli and Alia Ayman, co-founders of Egyptian arthouse cinema and distributor Zawya. The duo will also lead an online discussion about the films selected during the festival.

The season, which takes its name from the book There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other by Beirut-born artist and writer Etel Adnan, includes fiction, documentary, shorts and genre-defying films.

Here are a few highlights from the festival's programme:

1. 'Souad': until September 15

An engrossing portrait of the Middle East's Generation Z, Ayten Amin's film looks at the trials of adolescence, first love and the search for validation through the eyes of a girl aged 19 navigating the pressures of a conservative society and the freedom of expression found online.

The second feature from Egyptian director Amin, Souad was screened at Cannes Film Festival 2020 and at this year’s Berlin and Tribeca film festivals.

"I was always interested in how social media played a role in changing the relationships we have," Amin told The National.

“It plays a major role for girls in small cities in Egypt because it’s like a window of freedom. It’s a place where they can play certain roles away from their daily life, their conservative life. It’s a place where they have a daily boost.”

2. ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’: September 16

This Oscar-nominated film starring Yahya Mahayni follows the story of a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, who agrees to have his back tattooed by a famous artist in the hopes of joining his partner in Paris.

Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania told The National that the story was inspired by real-life events. In 2006, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye tattooed the back of Tim Steiner, a former studio owner from Zurich. The living artwork was sold to a collector and Steiner agreed to have his back skinned after his death, so the owner could hang the piece.

3. 'You Will Die at 20': September 23 and October 2

You Will Die at 20 by Amjad Abu Alala. Courtesy Pyramide Films

The family drama made history last November when it was selected as Sudan's first official nomination in the category for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 Academy Awards.

Directed by Amjad Abu Alala, it follows the life of Muzamil, 19, who is predicted by his village's holy man to die after his 20th birthday. The drama has already won a number of awards since it premiered in 2019, including the Grand Prix du Jury at Amiens International Film Festival and the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at Venice International Film Festival.

Speaking to The National, Alala described the film as a labour of passion. "Cinema should always be about the fire inside of us," he said. “If we didn’t try to find that fire, it would just be a cold piece of work. I wanted to get my fire outside.

4. 'Talking About Trees': September 20, September 27 and October 3

Talking About Trees. Courtesy AGAT Films & Cie

The second film by Sudanese writer and director Suhaib Gasmelbari, this documentary follows a number of Sudan's filmmakers as they attempt to take over a rundown cinema and revive a beloved film club.

Through the challenges and resistance they face in the process, the love they share for cinema and each other plays out on screen.

5. 'It Must Be Heaven': September 11, September 27 and October 4

Elia Suleiman in It Must Be Heaven. Courtesy Rectangle Productions

The long-awaited return of renowned Palestinian director Elia Suleiman is a witty satire starring himself as a silent protagonist who leaves Palestine for Paris and New York to find producers for his next film.

The world seems absurd through Suleiman’s eyes, and his journey is filled with subtle yet sharp reflections on modern-day Palestine.

The Time is New: Selections from Contemporary Arab Cinema runs at BFI Southbank in London and on BFI Player until Tuesday, October 5. More information is at whatson.bfi.org.uk

Updated: September 8th 2021, 12:55 PM