When the 70th Berlin International Film Festival announced this year’s main competition films back in December, cinema fans in the region may have been disappointed to see a distinct lack of works from the Arab world among the candidates for the top prize.
The situation was repeated when the festival announced its shorts programme in January, and it began to appear, despite the presence of directors Annemarie Jacir and Hala Lofty on the festival's juries, that we may be in for a decidedly dry year for the region.
Thankfully, however, now that the full festival line-up has been revealed, the balance has been redressed somewhat. From features starring international A-listers in the festival’s Panorama section, which this year focuses on migration, to shorts and installations in the forum section, which aims to look at topics including racism, sexism and climate crisis in a non-traditional way, the Berlinale 2020 will screen a diverse mixture of works from the Arab world.
The Berlinale runs from Thursday, February 20 to Sunday, March 1, and this year marks the first festival under the leadership of artistic director Carlo Chatrian and executive director Mariette Rissenbeek.
Here are the highlights from the region in this year’s programme.
'Mughal Mowgli' by Bassam Tariq
This British-made work is not technically a film from the Middle East, but we’re including it here on the basis of producer and star Riz Ahmed’s enduring popularity in the Gulf. The British-Pakistani actor plays Zed, a young British rapper about to embark on his first world tour when a crippling illness strikes him down. He is forced to move back in with his family, where he finds himself caught between an international music career and Pakistani family traditions.
'Kama fissamaa' kathalika ala al-ard' (As Above So Below) by Sarah Francis
This on-screen essay weaves together different facts and myths surrounding the Moon, with humans both at the centre and infinitely small in this celestial context. Francis's last film, Birds of September, premiered at Dubai International Film Festival in 2013 and saw her documenting life in Beirut from a van, filming day-to-day events from behind glass.
'Nardjes A' by Karim Ainouz
Algerian-Brazilian documentarian Karim Ainouz has already had success at major festivals including Cannes and Venice, as well as Berlin, where his last feature, Zentralflughafen THF, took home the Amnesty International prize two years ago. This year, he follows female activist Nardjes Asli with his camera, documenting Algerian youth taking to the streets in support of a democratic future for Algeria, demonstrations which led to the resignation of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
'Infinity Minus Infinity' by The Otolith Group
The Otolith Group's part-UAE-funded Infinity Minus Infinity explores racism in today's British society via the fate of the Caribbean immigrants of the Windrush generation. Their installation uses dance, music, recital and animation to examine the relationship between capitalism and racism and intertwines these with the repercussions of climate policy.
'Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther' by William Klein
In the late 1960s, Eldridge Cleaver, the political activist who became an early leader of the Black Panther Party, was in exile in Algeria. Klein’s 1970 visit resulted in a self-reflective, fascinating portrait of a controversial figure, who discussed everything from racism to the Vietnam War.
'Al-Houbut' (The Landing) by Akram Zaatari
Lebanese artist and filmmaker Akram Zaatari is best known for his photographic work, but in this hour-long audiovisual installation he heads to Sharjah and focuses on sound, bringing an abandoned desert public housing project to life in collaboration with a group of sound artists.
'Al-Maw’oud' (The Promised) by Ahmed Elghoneimy
Set in and around the historical ruins of Fustat in Old Cairo, tensions simmer between the site’s government-appointed guards and residents of a nearby informal settlement. For the guards it would be easiest to keep the site closed until further notice in this dynamic film.
'Moazzam ma yalla haqeqy' (Most of What Follows Is True) by Maged Nader
A man returns to his neighbourhood looking for his brother. He confronts the destruction of his old home, which has become a featureless wasteland. He keeps looking for his brother’s traces, but all he finds is the urban legend about his disappearance.
'Clebs' by Halima Ouardiri
For the 750 dogs that live in a Moroccan shelter, the daily routine consists of eating, resting, a bit of fighting and eating again. Could they possibly expect more from life? A pointed, cinematic commentary on mass confinement.
'Born of the * * * On Zarathustra's Going Under from Cairo to Oran' by Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri
Palestinian artist and filmmaker Anastas returns for the third time to her filmic attempt to translate Friedrich Nietzche's Thus Spake Zarathustra for the contemporary Arab world, a mission she began with 2007's A Film for Everyone and No-one.
'Purple Sea' by Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed;'Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea' by Forensic Architecture
These two works are based on video material recorded by Syrian artist and survivor Amel Alzakout as a boat full of Syrian refugees was sinking en route to Europe. How such images are to be dealt with and the relationship between them and their history is the theme of her own film Purple Sea, a collaboration with filmmaker Khaled Abdulwahed.
'Secrets of a Digital Garden: 50 Villages - 50 Flowers' by Riwaq with Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari
The Palestinian collective Riwaq's multimedia project Secrets of a Digital Garden: 50 Villages – 50 Flowers, considers the subversive potential of seeds as repositories of memory.
'Letter to a Friend' by Emily Jacir
The elder sister from Bethlehem’s best-known female filmmaking dynasty, Emily Jacir interlaces images, textures, movements, traces and sounds from more than a century to recount in minute detail a home and street in her home town.
'El Sghayra (Miss)' by Amira Gehanne Khalfallah
In a remote village in the Algerian desert, few inhabitants remain following France’s nuclear weapons testing in the region. With playfulness and imagination, a gleeful girl, the community’s only child, preserves a sense of life in the fading oasis.
'Yalda, la Nuit du Pardon' (Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness) by Massoud Bakhshi
In a reality TV show on the night of Yalda, Maryam, who has been condemned to death for murdering her much older husband, must beg for forgiveness and her life while the camera rolls. A tense drama about the power of forgiveness and the women who are doomed to remain prisoners.