Although most people tend to evaluate cinematography based on English-language productions – mostly American – we all know quite well that the cinema of the world is a very large category with millions of wonderful titles that are definitely worth watching.
From the European art film tradition, via the theatrical movies of the former Soviet Union and the always special Japanese cinema, to regional powerhouses such as Nollywood or Bollywood, films around the world are being created every day and there is much more to see besides the traditionally (and commercially) popular Hollywood productions. And while we do understand that not everyone likes an art film, we also think that that is not the reason to avoid recommending them for those who like them and for those who might start liking them.
This is exactly why we have decided to make today’s list and we have picked a group of films that are – usually – less known around the world but are considered to be true masterpieces. Today’s list is going to contain our 10 best Arab films, movies that have achieved international acclaim and best represent Arab cinematography. Since all of the movies on our list are masterpieces in their own right, we highly recommend each and every one of them. Enjoy!
1. Man of Ashes (Rih essed, 1986)
Directed by Nouri Bouzid, Man of Ashes is both one of the greatest and most controversial Arab films of the 80s. A movie dealing with sexual harassment and homosexuality – both very controversial topics in the Arab world – Man of Ashes is a majestic study of the link between individual oppression and the sociopolitical situation in Arab countries. A true masterpiece of Tunisian cinema.
2. Wedding in Galilee (Urs al-Jalil, 1987)
Although Wedding in Galilee is a Franco-Belgian co-production, Michel Khelifi’s film about a family’s wish to celebrate a traditional wedding despite an Israeli curfew after the war of 1948 is so traditionally Arab that we just had to list it here. It is a true masterpiece akin to Man of Ashes, a movie that explores the connection between the individual and the societal, a movie that shows the life of an Arab family in a turbulent historical period. It is one of the best-known Arab movies ever and has received several major awards.
3. The Sin (Al Haram, 1965)
Henry Barakat is a renowned Egyptian director famous for his female-led melodramas, among which The Sin is certainly one of the best ones. Led by the Egyptian legend, Fatin Hamama, The Sin explored the life of a strong-willed peasant girl who gets brutally raped, after which she becomes pregnant. The film wonderfully deals with the social, moral, and psychological consequences of the act, as well as her village’s reaction to it.
4. The Cruel Sea (Bas Ya Bahar, 1972)
Directed by Khalid Al Siddiq, The Cruel Sea is the first film produced in Kuwait, which speaks enough about its historical importance. The movie is very simplistic in its narrative, chronicling the life of pre-modern Kuwait, when the men would spend months at sea (fishing, working), leaving their families to fend for themselves. Still, despite that, this black and white work is technically very ambitious and we think it deserves your attention.
5. The Small Stranger (Le Petit Étranger, 1962)
Director Georges Nassar is known as the founder of Lebanese cinema and his second work, The Small Stranger, is a masterpiece in itself. Although written in French, the movie is part of the Arab tradition and chronicles the life of a young boy, an idealist, who visits the city and gets seduced by it, abandoning his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. This coming-of-age story is a truly majestic work of Lebanese cinema and it is no surprise that it has received widespread acclaim.
6. The Mummy (Al-Mummia, 1969)
A lot of critics say that the meticulously worked out technical aspects of this film are still unrivaled in Egyptian cinema. Director Shadi Abdel Salam, who had worked as an assistant to Rossellini and Mankiewicz, died relatively young but he made a name in the history of Egyptian cinema, especially with this movie. The Mummy is a movie about the continuity between old and modern Egypt, a movie about a group of peasants who live off from illegally trading pharaonic treasures, and a movie we highly recommend.
7. Chronicle of the Years of Fire (Waqāʾiʿu sinīna l-jamr, 1975)
Algerian director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina made a true masterpiece with this movie. Chronicle of the Years of Fire became the first and so far, only Arab film to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes, beating the likes of Scorsese, Herzog, Antonioni, Terayama, Bondarchuk, and Costa Gavras. Made in the tradition of Soviet war epics, this film looked like a Hollywood spectacle when it chronicled Algeria’s struggle for independence and is one of the most memorable Arab movies ever made.
8. Watch Out for ZouZou (Khally Balak Min ZouZou, 1972)
Now, to make the list more diverse, we decided to list one musical comedy – Watch Out for ZouZou. Egyptian director Hassan El-Imam became famous for this interesting musical comedy, which deals with the issues of class conflict in Egypt, also challenging traditional societal values and the reactionary conservativism of modern Arab societies.
9. 12 Angry Lebanese (2009)
We also had to include one of the best Arab documentary films ever made. Inspired by Reginal Rose’s Twelve Angry Men (which was brilliantly adapted into a movie by Sidney Lumet), this documentary by Zenia Daccache was a brilliant insight into the Lebanese prison system and an attempt at reformation. And while the title might be misleading, the movie is not a murder mystery, it is a brilliant film that you have to see and one of the best examples of Lebanese cinema.
10. Chitchat on the Nile (Thartharah fawq al-Nil, 1971)
Hussein Kamal directed this 1971 adaptation of a novel (Adrift on the Nile) by Naguib Mahfouz and we have decided to close our list with this movie. The movie’s primary subject is decadence and is a symbolic farewell to the old, “socialist” administration that was in place during Nasser’s term. While Chitchat on the Nile might not be as famous as the other titles on our list, it is certainly worth your attention.
And with this, we conclude our list. As we have said, all of these movies are absolutely amazing and we highly recommend