Arab Film Festival returns to Berlin cinemas

The Spotlight section of the 13th festival shines on Lebanon

This year's Arab Film Festival in Berlin looks at films from and about Lebanon in its Spotlight section. Photo: ALFILM

The 13th Arab Film Festival Berlin, ALFILM, will play out at cinemas in the German capital this month.

Running under three sections — Selection, Spotlight and Atelier — ALFILM promises enriching cinematic journeys from Somalia to Morocco and from Yemen to Palestine, with more than 44 feature fiction, documentary and short films.

From political dramas, social satire and thrillers to chronicles and love stories, the festival's spectrum is wide this year.

Running from April 20 to 26, ALFILM will kick off with the multiple award-winning Egyptian fiction film Feathers, which had its premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Screenings will be followed by talks with various invited directors, actors and producers.

This year's Spotlight section is on Lebanon, with a curated programme titled “From Civil War to Chaos: A Tribute to Filmic Resistance”. Focusing on films related to the crisis-ridden country, Spotlight opens with the Lebanese cross-generational film drama Memory Box, which was released this year.

Festival organisers say the Spotlight on Lebanon aims to “honour the filmmakers who creatively take their destiny into their own hands, convert traumas and experiences into films and thus actively shape resistance”.

Working with their partners Beirut DC and Cinematheque Beirut, ALFILM is running panel discussions and masterclasses that explore the making of films in times of crisis and the possibilities of creating politically engaging cinema.

Mounia Akl's first film ‘Costa Brava’ is a moving exploration of Lebanon's current existential crisis. Photo: ALFILM

Twelve selected filmmakers from the Arab diaspora will work together with experts during the two-day Atelier workshop, focusing on questions of identity, home, belonging, film language and equal opportunities.

Launched in 2009, ALFILM is the largest platform for the promotion of diverse Arab cinematography in Germany. Under the artistic direction of Pascale Fakhry, the festival aims to highlight films from the Arab world and its diaspora that have a high artistic value and present challenging perspectives on contemporary cultural, social and political issues.

The full ALFILM programme is available here.

Highlights of the festival

Wednesday, April 20

Feathers, Director: Omar El Zohairy

When a magic trick goes awry at a children’s birthday party, the authoritative father of the family turns into a chicken. The mysterious transformation sets the family on a tragi-comedic adventure of self-discovery to survive without the patriarch.

The mother (Demyana Nassar), whose life was dedicated to her husband and children, is now urged to come to the fore. While moving heaven and Earth to bring her husband back and secure the survival of her children, she goes through a total transformation. Feathers is a tale of scathing social satire, wry laughter and unsettling oddity.

The film had its world premiere during the 2021 Critics’ Week of the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Grand Prize. It has since won numerous prizes at film festivals around the world.

Omar El Zohairy's 'Feathers' had its world premiere during the 2021 Critics’ Week of the Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prize. Photo: ALFILM

Thursday, April 21

Memory Box, Directors: Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

Maia (Rim Turki), a single mother, lives in Montreal with her teenage daughter, Alex (Paloma Vauthier). On Christmas Eve they receive an unexpected delivery: notebooks, tapes and photos Maia sent to her best friend in 1980s Beirut.

Maia refuses to open the box or confront its memories but Alex secretly begins diving into it. Between fantasy and reality, Alex enters the world of her mother’s tumultuous, passionate adolescence during the Lebanese civil war, unlocking mysteries of a hidden past.

Using Joana Hadjithomas’s own diaries and tapes from 1982 to 1988 and Khalil Joreige’s wartime photographs, Memory Box underlines the importance of the role of memory in a country where the history of the civil war can be absent from public and political discourse.

On Friday, April 22 Joana Hadjithomas will take part in a panel discussion on theMultiple Roles of Archives in Building Counter-Narratives: from the Personal to the Collective.”

Little Palestine, Diary of a Siege, Director: Abdallah Al Khatib

The district of Yarmouk (Damascus, Syria) sheltered the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in the world from 1957 to 2018. When the Syrian revolution broke out, the regime of Bashar Al Assad led to Yarmouk becoming a refuge of rebels and resistance.

Gradually deprived of food, medicine and electricity, Yarmouk was cut off from the rest of the world. Between 2011 and 2015, Abdallah Al Khatib documented the daily life of the besieged inhabitants, shedding light on their plight and their courage, and paying tribute to their resilience.

Costa Brava, Director: Mounia Akl

The free-spirited Badri family escape the overwhelming pollution and social unrest of Beirut by seeking refuge in an idyllic mountain home they built for themselves. Their lives take an unexpected turn when the government decides to build a new “green” rubbish landfill on the other side of their fence.

Neither Soraya (Nadine Labaki) nor Walid (Saleh Bakri) trusts the corrupt Lebanese political elite and they are well aware that it is only a matter of time until they begin burning rubbish here, too, making the Badris' home uninhabitable. As the landfill level rises, so too does family tension.

The Badris are left with a choice: stay off-grid or leave their beloved home and face the reality they fled, hoping to stay true to their ideals. Mounia Akl's first film is a moving exploration of Lebanon's current existential crisis. It had its world premiere in the 2021 Venice Film Festival and won the Fipresci International Critics Prize at the El Gouna Film Festival.

The Alleys, Director: Bassel Ghandour

In a claustrophobic East Amman neighbourhood where gossip and violence run rampant, Ali (Emad Azmi), a hustler who pretends to be a businessman, has a secret relationship with Lana (Baraka Rahmani). Their romance is kept hidden until one day Lana’s mother Aseel (Nadira Omran) is blackmailed with a video of the young couple.

Hoping to avoid public embarrassment, Aseel discreetly convinces a ruthless gangster to put a stop to it … but things do not run smoothly. Their lives start to intertwine and collide not only with each other, but with the other residents living among the same alleys. Bassel Ghandour's first feature is a captivating thriller that brings together a complex and intelligent story with compelling characters.

Mariner of the Mountains, Director: Karim Ainouz

In January 2019, filmmaker Karim Ainouz takes a boat, crosses the Mediterranean and embarks on his first trip to Algeria. Accompanied by the memory of his mother Iracema and his camera, Ainouz gives us a detailed account of the journey to his father's homeland; from the sea crossing to his arrival in the Atlas Mountains in Kabylia, to his return. In this intimate documentary, Karim Ainouz interweaves present, past and future, taking viewers on a sentimental and immersive journey to his family's roots.

Monday, April 25

A Tale of Love and Desire, Director: Leyla Bouzid

Ahmed (Sami Outalbali), 18, French with Algerian roots, grew up in the suburbs of Paris. At university, he meets Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor), a young and energetic Tunisian girl who has just arrived in Paris. While discovering a corpus of sensual and erotic Arabic literature he never imagined existed, Ahmed falls deeply in love with Farah.

Although he feels overwhelmed with desire, he will try his hardest to resist it. In this coming-of-age story, love and desire function as tools to destabilise Ahmed and push him to question his identity, and through that the concepts of masculinity and Arabness. For his role of Ahmed, Sami Outalbali has been nominated for the 2022 Cesar Award for Best Newcomer.

Updated: April 08, 2022, 12:11 PM