Syria and Saudi Arabia take home prizes at 2019 Sundance Film Festival

Soudade Kaadan follows Venice Film Festival feature win with shorts top prize, while Raed Alsemari bags win on Saudi debut

Sara Balghonaimand, Ida Alkusayer, Jude Aldabbagh, and Ayah Bazian appear in <i>Dunya’s Day</i> by Raed Alsemari, an official selection of the Shorts Programs at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Olivier Theurillat.

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There was a smattering of success from the Middle East when the 2019 Sundance Film Festival handed out its prizes last night, including a second major win for Syrian director Soudade Kaadan. The director previously picked up the Lion of the Future – Luigi De Laurentiis Award for a Debut Film at Venice Film Festival back in September for her feature The Day I Lost My Shadow. Now Kaadan has added short films to her prize portfolio with a Grand Jury Prize for her follow-up, Aziza.

There was also success for Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom made its debut at the festival. Raed Alsemari's Dunya's Day was the first film from the country to ever be screened at Sundance, and it seems to bode well for the future of Saudi's film industry. Alsemari picked up a Short Film Jury Prize for International Fiction for his efforts.

Here’s our rundown of this year’s regional successes in Utah:

Aziza, Soudade Kaadan – Short Film Grand Jury Prize

Kaadan's short follow-up to her Venice Film Festival-winning The Day I Lost my Shadow takes us back to Syria, this time for a darkly comic look at the life of two refugees. Kaadan says of her latest movie: "I was tempted in this film to tell our stories as Syrians in exile with humour," and reveals that she shot her new film while she was waiting for the results of her submissions of her previous movie to festivals. Following the success of the first film, she admits it was a race to have number two ready in time for Sundance. "I only managed to finish the grading and mixing a few days before Sundance, with all the travelling around to the other festivals," she revealed to The National. As a prize-winner, the film will now join the Select Festival short films programme, which will tour around 70 US and Canadian cities over the course of the year. The short film prizes are presented by YouTube, and this year's judges were actress Sheila Vand (Argo, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), director and playwright Young Jean Lee (Straight White Men) and director and photographer Carter Smith (The Ruins).

Dunya’s Day, Raed Alsemari – Short Film Jury Prize for International Fiction

Short satirical comedy Dunya's Day tells the story of a privileged Saudi student and socialite who is forced to arrange her own graduation ball when her domestic staff walk out in protest at her attitude. The film is Saudi's first entry to Sundance, and features an all-female cast. Director Raed Alsemari said ahead of the screening: "At its core, Dunya's Day is about a woman's relentless pursuit of status. Tired of seeing clichéd narratives of oppression that reduce Arab women to victims or saints, I set out to portray a flawed but fierce Arab woman who is neither." Like Kaadan, Alsemari's film beat off competition from a total of 73 films in this year's shorts section, having already successfully won a place among almost 10,000 submissions.

Midnight Traveller, Hassan Fazili World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award: No Borders

Hassan Fazili and his wife Fatima Hussaini, also a filmmaker, are protagonists of their own documentary, which raises questions of the morality of turning human misery into great footage. When the pair received a death threat from the Taliban, they decided to flee their native Afghanistan for the safety of Europe. Their journey took several years via the Balkan route, and the family used their mobile phones to document every step of the way.

Ghosts of Sugar Land, Bassam Tariq Short Film Jury Award for Non-Fiction  

Not technically a film from the Middle East – Ghosts of Sugar Land was shot in Texas – but one that could attract plenty of interest from the region. Executive producer Laura Poitras will be a familiar name to cinephiles in the Middle East, as the first two films in her trilogy about the US' ongoing War on Terror followed events in Iraq and Yemen. My Country, My Country was nominated for an Oscar for its portrayal of life in Iraq under US occupation, while The Oath follows the trials of two Yemeni men caught up in the war – the latter film won an Excellence in Cinematography Award for US Documentary at Sundance in 2010. The third film in the trilogy left the region, but you've probably heard of it: Citizenfour won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, and a host of other awards for its investigation into the Edward Snowden whistleblowing affair.

Tariq’s film tells the story of a group of Muslim men in Sugar Land, Texas who are attempting to solve the mystery of a missing friend who is suspected of disappearing to join ISIS.