BFI London Film Festival 2021: which Arab films are screening?

Eight films from the Middle East will screen at the festival this month

Mounia Akl, left, director of 'Costa Brava, Lebanon', and filmmaker Bassel Ghandour, who's made 'The Alleys', will both have their films screened in London. Photo: AFP, Locarno Film Festival
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While it might not seem like it, the latest James Bond film No Time To Die is not the only movie event happening in Britain this week. The BFI London Film Festival gets under way, with in-person and online screenings, panel discussions and masterclasses.

After the recent programme The Time Is New: Selections from Contemporary Arab Cinema, which ran at London’s BFI Southbank in September, the LFF continues this love affair with filmmakers from the Mena region with a robust series of films on offer.

Here are the films from the Arab world screening at the festival:

'Costa Brava, Lebanon'

Lebanese filmmaker Mounia Akl has already seen her promising feature film debut premiere at Venice and win the Netpac award at Toronto, and now she caps that with an appearance at the London Film Festival. Set in a Lebanon of the near-future, when the refuse crisis is escalating, it follows the fate of a family when they move from Beirut to a rural retreat, only to find the government has ordered a foul-smelling landfill to be placed right next to their home. Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki (Capernaum) stars alongside Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri as a couple gradually fractured by this and other events in their complicated lives.

A still of Mounia Akl's 'Costa Brava'

'The Alleys'

This Arabic-language Jordanian drama marks the feature debut of Bassel Ghandour, who previously wrote/produced 2014’s Theeb after working as a production assistant on Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker. A co-production between Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it stars Emad Azmi and Baraka Rahmani as Ali and Lana, two young lovers whose lives are turned upside down when a video of them in a compromising position reaches Lana’s disapproving mother. Set in the eastern district of Amman and evocatively filmed by cinematographer Justin Hamilton, this tale of criminality, exploitation and the folly of youth bodes well for Ghandour’s career.

Jordanian director Bassel Ghandour poses during a photocall for 'The Alleys' at the 74th Locarno International Film Festival, in Locarno, Switzerland, on August 8, 2021. EPA

'The Sea Ahead'

Lebanese filmmaker Ely Dagher makes his feature debut with a film born out of his 2015 short Waves ’98, which won the Camera d’Or in Cannes for Best Short Film. The Sea Ahead, which played in Director’s Fortnight earlier this year, casts Manal Issa as Jana, a young woman returning home to present day Beirut from Paris, where she studied at university. Despite difficulties with her parents, she reconnects with a former lover (Roger Azar) and dives with him into the city’s underbelly for a story that touches on Lebanon’s unresolved past as well as its anxious future.

A still from 'The Sea Ahead' by Lebanese director Ely Dagher starring Manal Issa. The film world premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday. Photo: Ely Dagher

'Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege)'

A tough-as-nails documentary from Abdallah Al-Khatib, this Lebanese-French-Qatari co-production spirits audiences to Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, Syria, which at one point was home to the largest concentration of Palestinian refugees. What follows is difficult viewing, as – in 2013 – the Syrian regime blockaded routes in and out of Yarmouk. With food shortages a very real issue, alongside the terror of regular bombings, Al-Khatib’s diary account of events shows him meeting elders and children alike who make the best of a horrifying situation. A poetic tribute to humanity and the spirit of those he meets, Al-Khatib’s film is a hymn to resistance.

'Memory Box'

Past and present intertwine with real grace in this globe-trotting tale from filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (The Lebanese Rocket Society). The titular box is a package of keepsakes that arrives in contemporary Montreal on the doorstep of Maia (Rim Turki), belonging to her childhood friend from her days in 1980s war-torn Beirut. Intriguing Maia’s teenage daughter Alex (Paloma Vauthier), who begins to fantasise about her mother’s adolescence, even posting things on social media, what emerges is an elegant story that examines recollections and reminiscence afresh. Scored with 1980s hits – Blondie’s One Way or Another included – it’s a deft multi-generational study about the impact of memory.

Manal Issa stars as a young Maia in ‘Memory Box’. Abbout Productions

'What We Don't Know About Mariam'

Playing in the short film strand For Better or Worse – a series of films examining the institution of marriage – is What We Don’t Know About Mariam. Written and directed by Egyptian filmmaker Morad Mostafa, who's behind the short Henet Ward, this 20-minute narrative stars Doaa Ereikat as a mother whose daughter is bleeding and suffering from pain in her abdomen. When she takes her to the local hospital, tensions arise between her and her husband. Competing at the LFF for Best Short Film, Mostafa's work has already won prizes at several short film festivals, including the International Short Film Festival of Bueu.

'A Tale of Love and Desire'

Tunisian writer-director Leyla Bouzid follows her 2015 feature As I Open My Eyes with this seductive tale from the heart. Already, it’s screened as part of the Zurich Film Festival’s New World View section, which showcased work from a new generation of Tunisian filmmakers – and is another fine example of where Bouzid is heading as a filmmaker. Set in Paris, it follows a young literature student, Ahmed (Sami Outalbali, from Netflix show Sex Education), as he experiences the flush of first love when he meets the free-spirited Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor). Leaning on classic Arabic literature, Bouzid’s film also comes inspired by James Gray’s masterpiece Two Lovers, with Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow.

'Omar Amiralay: Sorrow, Time, Silence'

A portrait of the artist, this documentary from Syrian director Hala Abdallah turns the camera on fellow filmmaker Omar Amiralay. The Syrian documentarian and activist, who died unexpectedly in 2011 aged 66, only weeks before the uprising led to the end of the Assad regime, was beloved throughout the Arab world. Here, Abdallah returns to interview footage she shot with Amiralay before his death, when he was caring for his elderly mother. What follows is both a candid reflection on friendship and a look at Syria then and now.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from Wednesday, October 6 to Sunday, October 17

Updated: October 05, 2021, 5:31 AM