Ten must-watch Arabic films from the 1970s, a time of great change in the Middle East

The decade was an exploration of a new Arab identity following tragic and world-changing events

The 1970s featured a diverse range of films attempting to make sense of a new Arab identity. From left: Awdat al ibn al dal (Return of the Prodigal Son), Iskanderija... lih? (Alexandria... Why?) and Al Ard (The Land). Photo: ONCIC / MISR International Films /Egyptian General Foundation for Cinema and Television
Powered by automated translation

The 1970s proved to be an existential time for Arabic cinema.

Many of the important and popular films of the decade were grappling with the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The war transformed the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East, leaving lasting effects on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional tensions.

It also led to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region along with the pan-Arabist movement gaining prominence under leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well a strong influence from Hollywood and the West.

A combination of these elements changed the social fabric of many Arab countries, many of which were still grappling with their identities, torn between traditional values and modernity particularly after the fall of monarchies and colonial powers in the region.

Many film directors experimented with varying styles of cinema, blending genres and influences to further explore these realities on the screen. A majority of the films at the time were also based on popular novels – a medium which naturally delves into notions of identity and history in a more nuanced way.

Notably, films by pioneering and influential director, Youssef Chahine, were popular during the decade, given his interest in exploring postcolonial identity and modernisation.

From social commentary to political criticism and one of the most beloved romantic comedy musicals of the Arab world, here are 10 of the most influential films from the 1970s.

1. Al Ard (The Land), 1970

Based on the first novel of the acclaimed Egyptian writer Abdel Rahman Al-Sharqawi, Al Ard (The Land) is an important film about political and social oppression, urbanisation and the crisis of national identity in Egypt.

Directed by Chahine, the film follows the struggles of a small peasant village during the 1930s when Egypt was still under British colonial rule.

As villagers fight against the government's decision to cut their water irrigation rights in half, they are also faced with a more dangerous threat from a wealthy landowner. With plans to build a palatial home, the landowner needs to construct modern roads that would cut through the villagers' land.

Not only are the villagers facing two colossal threats to their livelihood but tensions also rise between them on the best course to take for the future of the village.

2. Thartharah fawq el-Nil (Adrift on the Nile), 1971

The decadence of Egyptian society is explored through the lives and experiences of a group of self-indulgent middle-aged friends.

Directed by the renowned Egyptian director Hussein Kamal and based on the novel by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Thartharah fawq el-Nil (Adrift on the Nile) follows the nightly excursions of a group of friends on a luxurious houseboat on the famous river.

When a young reporter is invited to write a story about them, she sees beyond their hedonistic lifestyle which includes parties, drugs and affairs, to their serious social alienation and the complexities of their lives and relationships.

Starring some of the decade's emerging stars such as Ahmed Ramzy, Magda El-Khatib and Mervat Amin, the film is a peek into the lives of Egyptian elite before the 1967 war. It also depicts political and societal changes during President Gamal Abdel Nasser's era, which left many of the old guard confused about their place in this new Egypt.

3. Al-makhdu'un (The Dupes), 1972

A powerful and poignant drama that tells the story of three Palestinian refugees in search of a better life, this film is directed by the noted Egyptian film director and writer Tawfiq Saleh. It is based on the novella, Men in the Sun, by the Palestinian author and politician Ghassan Kanafani.

The three men meet in Basra, Iraq, in 1958, after the Nakba of 1948 in Palestine which has left them displaced, impoverished and alone. The story follows their journey to Kuwait where they hope to find work and build a more sustainable future.

However, their path is filled with many dangerous obstacles, from dealing with the harsh conditions of the desert to crossing borders illegally.

4. Al Asfour (The Sparrow), 1972

Set in Egypt before and during the 1967 war, this is another film directed by Chahine that explores the nuances of political oppression.

It follows the story of a young police officer stationed in a small village where inhabitants face harassment and oppressive demands from a corrupt businessman.

Again, Chahine is interested in exploring the struggles of small communities and the social injustices faced by innocent civilians in rural areas who are caught up in the complexities of societal change during a challenging time in Egyptian history.

5. Khally ballak men ZouZou (Watch Out for ZouZou), 1972

Perhaps one of the most popular Arab films of all time, Khally ballak men ZouZou (Watch Out for ZouZou) is an influential romantic comedy that also comments on social convention and change.

The film stars the prolific and beloved actress Soad Hosny in one of her most well-known roles, along with Hussein Fahmy as her love interest.

Hosny plays ZouZou, a university student whose college professor falls for her. However, when his jealous fiance finds out, she decides to expose ZouZou’s secret – that she comes from a lower-class family of entertainers where she moonlights as a belly dancer.

While the film combines drama and comedy with plenty of musical numbers and dance sequences, it also provides commentary on the hypocrisy and growing tensions between tradition and modernism.

6. Al Karnak (Karnak Cafe), 1975

Set in the 1960s, Al Karnak (Karnak Cafe) is another riveting and important film based on a novel by Mahfouz.

The story follows the traumatic incidents that befall a group of medical students who often gather at a cafe in Cairo named the Karnak Cafe. It is known for hosting thinkers who sometimes openly criticise the 1952 Egyptian Revolution that transformed Egypt from a monarchy to a republic.

As a means to find scapegoats for a riot that took place in the city, the police randomly arrest the students for no reason. The students are then tortured and abused by the General Intelligence Directorate in an attempt to force a fake confession from them.

The film stars Hosny, who was critically praised for her powerful performance in many hard-to-watch scenes. The rest of the cast includes some of the Arab world's most talented actors including Nour El-Sherif, Kamal El-Shennawi, Farid Shawqi, Taheyya Kariokka, Emad Hamdy and Shwikar.

7. Al Risala (The Message), 1976

The life and times of the Prophet Mohammed are depicted in the epic film Al Risala (The Message).

While the Prophet Mohammed himself is never shown on screen, his influence and the early history of Islam are chronicled by the Syrian American director and producer Moustapha Akkad.

Filmed and released in Arabic and English, audiences were for the first time able to see in film the challenges early Muslims faced in their triumph through faith over challenges such as their persecution in Makkah until the establishment of the first Islamic state in Madinah.

The film received critical acclaim for its historical accuracy, costumes and production value, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score in 1977.

8. Al-saqqa mat (The Water Carrier Died), 1977

Considered one of the best films of the year, Al-saqqa mat (The Water Carrier Died) is the story of two unlikely friends from very different walks of life.

Directed by Salah Abu Seif, known as the godfather of Neorealist Egyptian cinema, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name by the prolific Egyptian writer and politician Yusuf al-Sibai.

Shousha El-Sakka is a humble water carrier who is haunted by the death of his wife. One day he meets Shehata, a man with a positive outlook who works in the funeral business. Despite their contrasting life experiences and world views, the two men form a strong bond as they navigate the challenges of life.

9. Awdat al ibn al dal (Return of the Prodigal Son), 1978

Following the themes he’s most interested in, Chahine once again directed a film that follows the commercial and social pressures faced by a small community in a rural town.

However in this instance, Chahine’s focuses in on the dynamics and tension within one family.

The film follows the sequence of events that shake a family to its core when their youngest son Ali returns home from after spending 10 years in jail as a political prisoner.

The family has been anticipating his return with hope as Ali, moral and idealistic, is the only one who can stand up to his tyrannical elder brother Tolba who has run the family business, the backbone of their town, into the ground.

The film stars Shukry Sarhan, Mahmoud El-Meliguy and Hoda Sultan, all experienced A-list actors at the time. Chahine also cast the now-renowned actor Hesham Selim in one of his first roles along with Lebanese singer Majida El Roumi in one of her only acting roles to date.

10. Iskanderija... lih? (Alexandria... Why?), 1979

Closing off the decade is another important film by Chahine, a semi-autobiographical story that portrays his early life in Alexandria during the Second World War.

The film follows the story of Yehia, an 18 year old who escaped the struggles of his immediate life into a fantasy world inspired by Hollywood and Shakespeare.

As an aspiring filmmaker, Yehia dreams of studying in the US, but as he falls in love and witnesses the realities of war he begins to question his identity and dreams.

Updated: June 04, 2024, 10:51 AM