It was a big weekend for Syrian cinema as the annual Venice Film Festival announced its award winners on Friday and Saturday.
First up, in Friday's Critics' Week awards, the Syrian civil war doc Still Recording, directed by Ghiath Ayoub and Saeed Al Batal, picked up the main prize, which is voted for by audiences. It also won the Critics' Week prize for technical contribution.
The documentary follows two idealistic art students, Saeed and Milad, who in 2011 decided to leave Damascus and go to Douma, a suburb under rebel control, to partake in the Syrian revolution. Amid revolutionary enthusiasm, they launch a local radio station and a recording studio. Four years of war, siege and famine, and 500 hours of footage, followed.
Over in the features section, meanwhile, Soudade Kaadan's The Day I Lost my Shadow, was among the prize winners too. It is the first Syrian feature to ever compete in competition at the world's oldest film festival, and that's after 86 years and 76 editions of the now annual event. The film picked up the Lion of the Future Luigi De Laurentiis Award for a Debut Film.
Kaadan’s movie is set at the outbreak of the civil war in 2012, and draws heavily on the director’s own experiences. Kaadan said of her award-winning film: “There are so few films coming out of Syria, other than foreign documentaries going in and then leaving, but this film is Syrian directed, produced, Syrian cast. We’re really very proud.”
Staying within the region, Palestinian actor Kais Nashif picked up the Orizzonti Award for Best Actor for his role in Sameh Zoabi's Tel Aviv on Fire. Zoabi's satire hones in on the situation faced by Palestinians living within the political borders of what is currently widely known as Israel. While many filmmakers choose hard-hitting drama or documentary to tackle the issue, Zoabi has gone for laughs.
The director told The National ahead of the film's Venice screening: "We talk about Palestine being a place that is very hard. But I always remember people laughing all the time. Even when discussing serious matters, the sentence always ended with the punchline of a joke. Particularly where I grew up, my family was always like that. That cultural humour of people who live with a reality that is politically unstable has always attracted me."
Further afield, there were some familiar names among the other winners over the weekend. Gravity and Y Tu Mama Tambien director Alfonso Cuaron marked his return to Spanish-language filmmaking with his semi-autobiographical, black and white drama Roma, which picked up the Golden Lion.
Greek director Jorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) picked up the Grand Jury Prize for his typically dark comedy The Favourite, and Olivia Colman claimed the Coppa Volpi for Best Actress for her role as an ailing Queen Anne of England in the same film. Colman is currently also in production on the Netflix series The Crown, in which she will return to regal duties as Queen Elizabeth II.
Australian director Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale was also a double winner. The revenge thriller won the Special Jury Prize and also the Marcello Mastroianni nod for best young actor, which went to Baykali Ganambarr.
There were further honours for Willem Dafoe for his role as Vincent Van Gogh in Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate; for French director Jacques Audiard for his English language Western The Sisters Brothers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly as sibling hitmen, and for The Coen Brothers, who claimed Best Screenplay for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
In a sign of changing times, the wins for Roma and Scruggs also represent the first time movies produced by Netflix have picked up key awards at a major festival. Next up – Toronto.