Films from the Mena region make the cut at Cannes Film Festival 2022

Directors from the Middle East and North Africa have been picked to showcase their talents

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The Cannes Film Festival is back with a promise to promote movies from across the planet.

The world’s most prestigious cinematic gathering has endured a difficult time these past two years — cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic, and moved into July last year in a desperate attempt to outrun Covid-19.

This year, for the 75th event, it’s back to its traditional May berth, with a dazzling array of films both in and out of competition.

The red carpet will be rolled out for celebrities including Tom Cruise (presenting Top Gun: Maverick) and Baz Luhrmann (back in Cannes with his Elvis biopic). But there will also be plenty of talent on show from the Mena region, too.

'Boy from Heaven'

Directed by: Tarik Saleh

The Swedish-born Tarik Saleh returns once again to the roots of his Egyptian father, as he did for his 2017 Cairo-set crime saga The Nile Hilton Incident.

That film stars Fares Fares, and the Lebanese actor returns for a prominent role in Boy from Heaven, the director’s first time competing in Cannes’ main competition.

The story follows Adam, the son of a fisherman, who is offered the chance to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. But when the Grand Imam dies suddenly, Adam finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between Egypt’s religious and political elite.

After Saleh directed episodes of Westworld and Ray Donovan, as well as the recent Chris Pine action thriller The Contractor, it’s intriguing to see him back in the art house realm in a film that looks destined to be one of the talking points of the festival.

'Holy Spider'

Directed by: Ali Abbasi

Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi scored a big hit with his 2018 fable-like tale Border, and off the back of that he lands a place in Cannes’ main competition with Holy Spider.

Abbasi, who is also set to direct episodes of the much-anticipated video game adaptation The Last of Us, was forced to delay the production on Holy Spider for a year because of Covid-19, and eventually wound up shooting in Jordan.

The plot is hugely enticing: the story follows a journalist who plunges into the underworld of the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, as she investigates the murders of sex workers by the so-called "Spider Killer", who believes he is cleansing the streets of sinners.

'Under the Fig Trees'

Directed by: Erige Sehiri

Playing in the Directors' Fortnight strand is Under the Fig Trees by Tunisian-French filmmaker Erige Sehiri, who grew up in Lyon. She later returned to her parents’ native Tunisia in January 2011, following the fall of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, where she initially worked as a journalist.

Sehiri has since turned to directing, making the 2018 feature documentary Railway Men, set in the world of Tunisian train drivers.

Under the Fig Trees marks her first fiction feature and charts the story of a group of teenagers working as fig-pickers over one summer, as flirtations occur and romance sparks. Featuring a cast of non-professional actors, it was shot in Kersa, an Amazigh village in north-western Tunisia noted for its figs.

'The Dam'

Directed by: Ali Cherri

Also taking its place in Directors’ Fortnight is The Dam, the new film from Lebanese artist Ali Cherri. Beirut-born Cherri’s acclaimed work in prints, sculpture and video installation have been exhibited all over the world and he is the 2021 artist in residence at London’s prestigious National Gallery.

The Dam marks his first feature film. Written by Cherri and Geoffroy Grison, in collaboration with the admired French director Bertrand Bonello (2011’s House of Tolerance), it's set in Sudan, near the Merowe dam, and stars newcomer Maher El Khair. He plays Maher, who works in a traditional brickyard close to the Nile, but every evening secretly disappears into the desert to build a mysterious construction made of mud.

A six country co-production, including Lebanon and Qatar, it looks every bit as unique as Cherri’s artworks.

'Ashkal'

Directed by: Youssef Chebbi

Another Directors’ Fortnight title is Ashkal, the directorial debut of Tunisian filmmaker Youssef Chebbi. While he’s already helmed two shorts (Vers le Nord and Les Profoudeurs), as well as co-directed the prize-winning 2012 documentary Babylon, this feels like a step up for Chebbi.

Co-written by him and Francois-Michel Allegrini, the film is a mystery story set in post-revolution Tunisia. Two police officers, Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa), discover a burnt corpse in one of the abandoned construction sites in the Gardens of Carthage district in Tunis.

The film has been described as “a crime film in a film noir vein which slowly edges towards sci-fi”, which will surely excite viewers in Cannes.

'The Blue Caftan'

Directed by: Maryam Touzani

In the Un Certain Regard category is The Blue Caftan, a film co-produced by Moroccan-French director Nabil Ayouch, who last year had the honour of seeing his Casablanca Beats become the first Moroccan feature to play in Cannes’ main competition.

A scene from 'The Blue Caftan'. Photo: Les films du Nouveau Monde - Ali n' Productions - Velvet Films - Snowglobe

The Blue Caftan is directed by Ayouch’s wife, actress-screenwriter Maryam Touzani, who also had her 2019 film Adam feature in the Un Certain Regard category. Her latest film tells the tale of a couple — Halim and Mina — who ran a caftan shop in one of Morocco’s oldest markets. But things change when they hire a young apprentice in the store. Another delicate-looking drama for the Croisette.

'Harka'

Directed by: Lotfy Nathan

Another director with a Tunisian story making his feature film debut at this year’s Cannes is Lotfy Nathan. The filmmaker, born to Egyptian parents, is best known for his 2013 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, based on illegal dirt bike riders in Baltimore.

Selected for Un Certain Regard, his new film Harka tells the story of a young man in his twenties named Ali living on the margins. Already making a shaky living selling contraband gasoline, his life takes a turn when his father suddenly dies and he’s left to look after his two younger sisters. While he’s keen to find legitimate employment, only illicit opportunities seem to present themselves.

Playing Ali is Adam Bessa, the French actor who previously featured in Mosul (produced by Avengers: Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo) and the Netflix action-thriller Extraction, starring Chris Hemsworth.

The Cannes Film Festival runs between May 17 and May 28

Scroll through the gallery below to see the opening ceremony of Cannes Film Festival 2021:

Updated: May 09, 2022, 4:23 AM