10 of the best films from MENA filmmakers in 2021

Header - The New Arabs Top 10 Arab films of 2021
10 min read
29 December, 2021
Notwithstanding the cinematic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 has been a stellar year for Arab and MENA based filmmakers. With such talent on show, The New Arab have rounded up a few of our favourite picks from the past year.

The uncertainty of 2020 certainly leaked into 2021 with the world continuing to adapt and attempt to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Luckily, cinema in the time of coronavirus has variously provided a much-needed respite, especially from Middle Eastern and Northern African filmmakers. That’s not to say these offerings have totally ignored current affairs; the power of cinema comes from its ability to reflect and respond to the goings-on in the world and there has been an abundance of MENA films with a considerable amount to say.

So with the year coming to an end, here are some (but not all!) of the best movies to have come out of the Middle Eastern world and diaspora that you mustn’t miss.

Costa Brava, Lebanon

Shot in 2020, just a few months after the Port of Beirut explosion, Mounia Akl’s likable intergenerational drama is set in the near future and centred on the Badri family as their idyllic homestead slowly morphs into a toxic prison, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The more trash that gets dumped near the borders of their home, the more rotten the Badris' once cosy existence becomes.

The low budget film boasts an impressive ensemble cast of established and emerging talent including Lebanese actor-filmmaker Nadine Labaki as Soraya, a former pop singer who years earlier moved with her activist-journalist husband Walid, played by Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri. 2016’s Captain Fantastic comes to mind when appreciating the quirky off-the-grid humour underscoring the uneasy tension in Akl and co-writer Clara Roquet’s lightly dystopian story but It’s the lived-in chemistry between Bakri and Labaki that is most enticing.

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It has some pacing issues, but Costa Brava, Lebanon is an affable family drama, reinforced by compelling performances and sharp direction. It’s also a prescient reminder that even when we might want to shut the door on the political, that rarely prevents the political from finding its way in.

Copilot

Anne Zohra Berrached’s Copilot, her latest feature inspired by the true story of 9/11 terrorist Ziad Jarrah and his girlfriend Aysel Şengün. The fictionalisation, written by Berrached with Stefanie Misrahi, is divided into five chapters, each marking a year in the relationship of Lebanese born Saeed (Roger Azar) and his Turkish girlfriend Asli (Canan Kir), who meet as students in Hamburg in the mid-90s. The chemistry between Azar and Kir is palpable.

The naturalistic cinematography and understated dramaturgical choices avoid the sensationalism a story like this could easily inspire. Berrached’s assured direction and grounded storytelling delivers an impressive, human exploration of love, duty and the lies we tell ourselves in a political climate that continues to divide and destroy lives on both a global and personal level. Read the full review here.

A Hero 

In Iranian filmmaker’s Asghar Farhadi’s fable-like social drama, which took home the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, a divorced father must contend with his own conscience and the court of public opinion as he attempts to secure his release from prison.

Rahim (Amir Jadidi) has two-day parole from imprisonment for debt and has a plan to secure his freedom involving a lost bag filled with gold. But when his scheme garners media attention, both traditional and online, as well as charitable interest, his half-truths and omissions threaten the new heroic status he has been given. With his brother-in-law still demanding repayment for his debts, and immovable in his position on Rahim’s character, the debtor’s calculated risk struggles under the weight of social and political expectations.

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As much as Jadidi’s earnest performance has you rooting for his freedom, Farhadi’s subtle yet impactful writing has you hoping for his wake-up call too. Rahim is not without flaws and this film is as much about him confronting them as it is society pedestaling people without accepting them for the imperfect beings they might be.

You Resemble Me

You Resemble Me, the directorial debut of Egyptian-American filmmaker Dina Amer and co-written by Omar Mullick tackles the complex issues concerning womanhood, trauma, family, religion, identity, politics, loneliness and terror.

It’s a story of two halves; one that begins in early ‘00s Paris where two child-sisters of Moroccan descent, Hasna (Lorenza Grimaudo) and Mariam (Ilonna Grimaudo), are celebrating the younger one’s birthday. Fast-forward to 2015 and that sisterly bond has now completely broken as we reunite with an adult Hasna (Mouna Soualem), a party girl and sometimes prostitute who works at a burger joint, is couch surfing at a friend’s home and is estranged from Mariam who is not taking her calls. Every time Hasna tries to pick herself up, the world manages to knock her back down again and it is fracturing her soul.

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There’s a raw power to Soualem’s performance conveying a simmering sense of rage and fragility as we witness the latent effects of her traumatic, unstable upbringing. Amer presents this story of a splintered woman with the utmost humanity to ensure your emotional investment. Read the full review here.

There Is No Evil

The word “evil” has long taken on a supernatural quality in its use to describe those who carry out the most immoral and despicable acts. But in the Iranian filmmaker’s latest film, There is No Evil, Mohammad Rasoulof resolves the statement in his title by exploring the very human realities behind the monstrous act of killing.

In four stories, the Iranian filmmaker puts a focus on capital punishment in Iran and the way the death penalty is frequently used to silence political dissenters, protesters and minority groups.

Instead of depicting the top dogs who write oppressive tactics into law and give the orders, he’s chosen to spotlight the everyday individuals who carry out these heinous acts. They aren’t your stereotypical executioners, ominously wearing a hood and dragging an axe along the floor to wield almighty punishment, but husbands, fathers, sons and lovers who might be legally empowered to take the lives of those they are told are criminals but still have to contend with the inhumane actions they choose to take. Rasoulof is fighting for the soul of a nation with his nuanced, grounded yet devastating storytelling.

The Man Who Sold His Skin

The Man Who Sold His Skin was inspired by another man who sold his skin, Tim Steiner, who provided his back as a canvas for Belgian artist Wim Delvoye to tattoo over a decade ago, and was bought by a German art collector for 150,000 euros (£130,000). But in Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania’s movie, she has instead positioned Sam, a Syrian refugee (Yahya Mahayni), as her eponymous hero who is painted with a Faustian brush but given the heart of Orpheus as he endeavours to reunite with his love.

The first broad steps of the film are those of a simple drama about class, displacement and the quest for a better life. It certainly lulls you into the idea that this would be another run-of-the-mill refugee story but Ben Hania never allows it to get that far by avoiding any trauma cliches. She instead, morphs the narrative into a satirical indictment of the commodification of humanity for the sake of art.

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It’s a brilliantly provocative and highly entertaining skewering of the refugee narrative that so often dictates our perception of those who were, in the words of Sam, “not born on the right side of the world.” By situating this modern myth in the underbelly of the contemporary art scene, Ben Hania holds up a mirror to the uneasy relationship between artistry and power that can often see humanity left at the gallery door. Read the full review here.

A Tale of Love and Desire

This coming-of-age story from Tunisian writer-director Leyla Bouzid’s captures not just the romantic and sexual insecurity of an 18-year-old man but his rocky sense of identity as the French son of Algerian refugees with no real sense of his family’s history.

On his first day at university, Ahmed (Sami Outabali), becomes infatuated by fellow student Farah (Zbeida Belhajamor) during their class on Arab poetry. It’s love, well lust at least, at first sight for Ahmed but these new feelings of yearning strive to overwhelm the emotionally-repressed teen as the two get to know one another.

They might both be North African, but Ahmed and Farah’s upbringing, culture and diasporic existence couldn’t be more different which forces the former to ask uncomfortable questions of himself and of his father who might have found asylum in France but has yet to find purpose or the vigour of life he once had. A tender portrait of young love, mixed cultures and how complicated the idea of belonging can truly be.

Sabaya

Kurdish-Swedish filmmaker Hogir Hirori’s 90-minute documentary highlights the compassion, determination and heroism within the Kurdish-Yazidi community to protect, rescue and fight for their own. The story centres on Mahmud, a volunteer with the Yazidi Home Center who has made it his mission to help locate and rescue some of the estimated 7,000 girls and women who had been ripped from their families, forced to convert to Islam and serve as sex slaves by ISIS forces after the 2014 genocide against the Yazidis near Sinjar in Northern Iraq.

These Yazidi women’s identities were stripped away and replaced with the label “sabaya” by their captors, with both male and female Daesh supporters enforcing their brutally oppressive treatment.

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Hirori portrays Mahmud and his team as ordinary people doing extraordinary things. This is a story as much about the resilient, collective power of this community as it is the tragic horror that continues to fuel their fight for justice and freedom. It stands up against For Sama and Collective for its brilliant unvarnished, on-the-ground storytelling of real-life heroes facing mammoth odds. Sabaya is a devastating record of courage and a Yazidi saviour narrative worthy of global attention. Read the full review here.

The Humans

Lebanese-American playwright Stephen Karam makes his feature film debut by directing and adapting his own Tony-winning one-act play The Humans. Having previously explored his Lebanese heritage in the play Sons of The Prophet, Karam brings his Maronite faith to the Thanksgiving table, and Scranton roots, in this curious family drama set during the American holiday.

Gathered at the run-down New York apartment of their musician daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun), Erik Blake (Richard Jenkins) struggles to contain his unease and anxiety while his wife Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) laments her daughter’s apathy towards religion. Their eldest daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) is nursing a break-up and an intestinal ailment and they are caring for Erik’s elderly mother (June Squibb) with Alzheimer's disease. As the night continues, the familial tension intensifies as things unsaid are forced into the open. Poignant, painful and relatable, Karam captures economic anxiety across generations with shuddering precision

Limbo

Okay, Scottish filmmaker Ben Sharrock might not be a MENA filmmaker but after years of studying and working in various MENA countries, he’s written, produced and directed a rather brilliant and refreshing narrative on the refugee crisis which deserves a shout out.

British-Egyptian actor Amir El Masry takes the lead as Omar, a Syrian musician awaiting the result of his refugee claim on a fictional Scottish island that is remote with a capital R.

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Breathtaking shots of hilly vistas and nature untouched emphasise how isolated an existence he is living; a purgatorial state that lives up to the film’s title with the help of dated costumes made up of charity stop donations, dilapidated accommodation with peeling wallpaper and a slew of 20th Century pop culture references. Limbo’s satirical lens makes its asylum-seeking protagonist that much more relatable to viewers in a delicate world, one that is both grounded and off-kilter, that always keeps the refugees at its centre. Read the full review here.

Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.

Follow her here: @HannaFlint