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A look at the top 10 Middle East movies of 2021

Our ranking features a controversial dark comedy about an Egyptian man turned into a chicken and a female-led Tunisian slasher
Youssef Chebbi and Ismael's Black Medusa makes the top 10 of this year's best films for it's dark take on violence and feminism (Utopia Flms)

It was not the best of times. It was not the worst of times. It was most definitely the most uncertain of times. For the second year in a row, the pandemic has shaped the course of the global film industry.

After a slow start to 2021, when cinemas across the globe remained closed, mass vaccination campaigns made it possible for theatres to open at full capacity for the first time in more than a year.

The number of admissions grew gradually until peaking in the summer before returning to pre-Covid rates in several countries.

Cannes 2021: Middle Eastern films make their mark
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Upon reopening, cinemas found themselves with a glut of films that had been awaiting release for more than a year. High-profile titles proved to be the biggest winners, while smaller global productions faced a tall order in attracting attention in a dwindling market.

Middle Eastern films have faced that latter challenge, hampered further by shrinking column inches for world cinema, as editors and critics fixate on Hollywood and trendy auteur movies.

A number of Middle Eastern films that debuted in festivals in 2020 – Their Algiers, Zanka Contact, Ghosts – have had considerable success in their theatrical runs in 2021, along with continuous festival roll-out. The majority, however, have found it extra difficult to stand out in a highly congested marketplace where independent films are rendered a "non-event," as American critic Richard Brody put it this month.

Hopes for a full recovery were dashed late in the year with the rising Covid rates and the spread of the Omicron variant.

Many within the industry have the impression that it’s back to square one, with fear of insurmountable uncertainties as the pandemic thrusts them into a battle for survival. 

Armed with a steady if not increasing subscribers-base, streamers have continued to dominate the industry, becoming the primary mode of viewership and throwing a lifeline for independent filmmakers.

Mubi, in particular, was a major beneficiary of this fluctuating landscape, acquiring some of the biggest independent films of the year – Palm d'Or winner Titane, Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta among others – not only for streaming but also for theatrical release.

Amid these mounting fears and beyond the metric of financial success, Middle Eastern cinema has nevertheless managed to pull off one of its best years in recent memory, producing an impressively eclectic end product, audacious in form and politics.

Varying in scope, genre, and aesthetics, the best Middle Eastern films of 2021 are a heady mix of existential treatises, coming-of-age stories, road movies, queer cinema, dark comedies, and atypical women pictures.

Each one of the titles below reflects the distinctive visions of its makers; each one challenges the dominant narratives of the Middle East in the West. Collectively, they stand as a testament to the breadth and range of the region's perpetually evolving cinema.

This was a rare year when cinemas in the region managed to steal some of television's ubiquitous limelight, illustrating in the process why our authoritarian rulers are still fixated on controlling the industry. Even with the proliferation of streaming services and the open world wide web, Arab governments are increasingly regulating what gets shown on the big screen and what doesn't.

As a series of high-profile scandals demonstrates, 2021 was the year cinema proved it still retains the power to steer the cultural dialogue forward in the Middle East.

Notable instances included the local backlash that greeted Omar El-Zohairy's Egyptian Cannes winner, Feathers, and Jordan's withdrawal of Mohamed Diab's Palestinian story, Amira, from the Oscar race.

There were also whitewashing accusations targeting the inaugural edition of Saudi Arabia's Red Sea film fest and the banning of Marvel's The Eternals and West Side Story over their gay and transgender supporting characters.

Where the industry goes from here is anyone's guess. Several producers in the region have told this writer that they have decided either to quit or freeze their activities for the time being.

More and more, directors are taking on side-jobs to sustain their filmmaking; half of the directors in the current list have parallel careers.

It is thus all the more crucial to celebrate the little miracles that made 2021 a vintage year for Arab cinema.

10. Black Medusa

Tunisian pair Youssef Chebbi and Ismael's debut feature is a jolting journey into the heart of darkness; a complex, enterprising rumination on violence, feminism, and sex that doubles as a panorama of the lawless metropolis of Tunis.

A reimagining of Abel Ferrara's cult classic Ms .45, Black Medusa sees its enigmatic vigilante heroine (Nour Hajri) embark on violent nocturnal attacks against random men. 

The movie deviates from both Ferrara's Catholicism and the tired North African narrative of the oppressed woman victim, painting a stark picture of a woman who takes on violence as a means of emancipation but finds herself sucked into a web of brutality that conceals profound trauma and burning wounds.

Shot in striking black and white canvases that reflect both the heroine’s inner turmoil and the city’s apathy towards its denizens (Utopia Films)
The black-and-white film reflects both the heroine’s inner turmoil and an apathetic city (Utopia Films)

Shot in striking black-and-white canvases that reflect both the heroine's inner turmoil and the city’s apathy towards its denizens, Chebbi and Ismael refrain from judgement or promoting puritanical morality, infusing their film with clashing sensations and uneasy questions.

Beautiful and savage in equal measures, Black Medusa is the year's top Arab genre film.

9. Souad

The Cannes-nominated sophomore feature by Egyptian director Ayten Amin is the most authentic depiction of Egyptian women since Hala Lotfy's Coming Forth By Day (2012).

Set in the densely populated city of Zagazig in lower Egypt, a region rarely visited in cinema, young starlet Bassant Ahmed is the eponymous teenage girl who leads a double life as veiled daughter of a lower middle-class family and virtual lover to an Alexandrian online content creator.

An unexpected tragedy propels her young sister (Basmala Elghaiesh) to travel to Alexandria and uncover her sister's secrets.

Souad explores Egypt's class structure as a backdrop to the complex relationship between two teenage friends (BFI)
Souad explores Egypt's class structure as a backdrop to a tale about identity and teenage friendship (BFI)

Working with a cast of mostly first-time actors, Souad is part exploration of the disjunction between the fading middle-class metropolis of Alexandria and the quasi-urban Delta; an incisive look at growing class barriers in post-2011 revolution Egypt; and a dissection of the constructed dreamscape women from unprivileged backgrounds have made for themselves.

The film contains the kind of naturalistic Egyptian vernacular seldom heard in mainstream cinema and boasts a brilliant sound design, which emphasises the impact of economic ruin on both cities.

Souad is both a study of teenage girls torn between a decaying culture and pressing desires and a snapshot of a lost generation.       

8. The Stranger

The first film shot in the occupied-Golan Heights and the debut feature by Golan native Ameer Fakher Eldin doubles as a character study of broken masculinity and a haunting meditation on displacement, disorientation and dismembered identity.

Palestinian star Ashraf Barhom, in arguably the finest Arab performance of 2021, is the Russian-educated unlicensed physician Adnan, who has given up his practice and taken to the bottle.

An unlicensed doctor
An unlicensed doctor played by Ashraf Barhom (above) encounters a wounded Syrian soldier in the occupied Golan Heights (Metaform Productions)

Estranged from his father, wife, and daughter, Adnan's static, meaningless existence is turned on its head when his paths intertwine with a nameless wounded Syrian solider.

The film's dense, broody atmosphere is tempered by the director's precise visual lyricism, which harkens back to the work of Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky.

Capturing the desolation of the discarded Golan in evocative wide-angle imagery, Fakher Eldin's Venice contender is the most gorgeously photographed Arab film of the year and a gripping picture about a place and people stranded in everlasting limbo with no exit, a place and people waiting for a deliverance that never comes.

7. A Tale of Love and Desire    

Hot on the heels of her 2015 Venice winner, As I Open My Eyes, Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid ups her game with her latest effort, a shrewd, entertaining romantic drama centred on an 18-year-old conservative French Algerian and his free-spirited Tunisian college mate.

The pair's whirlwind romance is a scratchboard for myriad ideas on the relationship between class sexual freedom, the forgotten history of Arab Literary eroticism, and the evolving face of Arab youth.

Bouzid compensates the formal mundanity of the picture, which had its world premiere at Cannes' Semaine de la critique, with the sizzling chemistry between the two leads (Sami Outalbali and Zbeida Belhajamor) and a mature narrative abundant with insight into young Arab lives.

A love affair builds up between teenage university students representing different parts of the Arab diaspora, while studying Arab Literary eroticism (Pyramide International)
A love affair builds up between teenage university students representing different parts of the Arab diaspora (Pyramide International)

More imperatively, Bouzid challenges the centrality of religion in Arab culture by reclaiming the oft-neglected history of pre-Islamic Jahiliyya poetry, an astonishingly progressive cultural heritage where sex, individual freedom, and tradition harmoniously co-exist. 

We rarely see Arab youth portrayed with such intricacy, vividness, and sympathy. Bouzid shatters conventions every step of the way to render A Tale of Love and Desire one of the most important political films of the year.

Dreamy, sexy and disarmingly warm, it is one of the best Arab romantic dramas of the new century.

6. Miguel's War

A double winner at this year's Berlinale, Lebanese Eliane Raheb's searing documentary is another watershed moment in the defiant course of queer Arab cinema. The titular subject is a middle-aged Lebanese man whose flamboyant gay lifestyle as an interpreter in Spain conceals a tormented past as ex-Phalangist soldier and self-flagellating Catholic.

With great tact and sensitivity, Raheb, the region's most skillful interviewer, unpeels the layers of a soul still scarred by familial and communal ostracism and also the strain of the war.

The film combines re-enacted sequences from Miguel’s teen years with archival footage offering a personal insight into Miguel's queer Arab life (Berlinale)
Miguel's War combines re-enacted sequences from Miguel’s teen years with archival footage (Itar Productions)

Combining stop-motion animation, archival footage and re-enacted sequences from Miguel's Lebanese adolescence, Miguel's War is Rehab's most formally inventive film: a dizzying kaleidoscope of surreal images and daringly defaced political and religious iconography that pushes the boundaries of queer Arab film.

Commendably adopting a non-sanitised approach that challenges both the Lebanese Christian political hierarchy and the far-reaching censorship of the region, Miguel's War places the legacy of the civil war into a new context. 

The film hypothesises that the roots of the 25-year-old conflict were not only sectarian but patriarchal as well. The lies Miguel tells of his suppressed past, the lies he can no longer distinguish from the truth, finally transpire to be as a coping mechanism, a tool for reinventing a new persona distinct from the lovelorn Lebanese youth he was made to loath.

5. Hit the Road

Winner of London Film Fest's best-film prize, Hit the Road is a debut feature by Iranian Panah Panahi, son of the award-winning filmmaker Jafar.

The region's biggest crowd-pleaser of the year, the road movie unfolds over the course of a single day and follows a middle-class family of four as they bid farewell to their older brother, who has to leave the country for reasons that are kept secret.

A family road trip marred the invisible threat of a regime (Celluloid Dreams)
A family road trip becomes marred by the invisible threat of an unnamed regime (Screengrab/Celluloid Dreams)

For a majority of the film, Panahi shrouds it with a mystery that is never fully divulged, taking his audience on a bouncy ride that starts off as a light family reunion and ends with heartbreak.

The suspicion of being followed and dispensing with the mobile phones hint both at the not-so innocuous nature of the family trip and an obvious fallout with the law. Panahi's Iran is a country governed by an overriding fear of the invisible; a regime that casts every citizen as a suspect.

The wit that informs the earlier segments is gradually swapped with a coda of resignation, an admission of failure in trying to beat a draconian system that shows no signs of change.

Throughout, Panahi maintains a light, humanistic touch, off-setting the ascending melancholy with earworm Iranian pop tunes and a number of amusing set-pieces involving the firecracker little brother, played by Rayan Sarlak, the breakout star of the film.

4. Memory Box

A hit with both critics and audiences, the sixth feature by Lebanese visual artist and filmmaker duo Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (I Want to See, The Lebanese Rocket Society) is a deeply affectionate, wistful postcard to the freewheeling Beirut that once was but no longer exists.

Set between a present-day Montreal and war-torn Beirut of the 1980s, the seemingly tranquil life of a middle-aged Lebanese immigrant to Canada (Rim Turki) is disrupted when she receives a box of photographs, cassette tapes and notes from her former best friend from Beirut.

This "memory box" forces her to come to terms with a past and a hometown with which she never managed to reconcile.

The hit film takes a nostalgic look back at Lebanon in the 80s through a box-full of memories rediscovered (Berlinale)
The film takes a nostalgic look back at Lebanon in the 80s through a box-full of memories (Abbout Productions)

The pair's best movie to date is an emotional tour de force that employs still photography, film, and myriad audio sources in fashioning a gorgeous tribute to the Beirut of the directors' youth; a Beirut that has been washed out by corruption, sectarian divisions, and the unprecedented economic crisis.

Every frame of the film seeps with throbbing loss and an insatiable longing for hope. Memory Box is no mere exercise in nostalgia. It is a reminder of the lost spirit of a country that only exists in film, in photographs, and in the memories of those who witnessed happier times within its borders.

3. The Sea Ahead

If Memory Box is a misty postcard to the lost Beirut, Ely Dagher's debut feature is its memento mori.

Rising star Manal Issa (the co-star of Memory Box) is Jana, a college dropout who suddenly returns to Beirut for reasons that are never revealed. Alienated from her family and immediate surroundings, she rekindles a past romance as she struggles to find her place in a dying Beirut.

An understated look at Beirut through the experiences of Jana (played by Manal Issa) as she returns to a dying city (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs)
The film is an understated look at Beirut through the experiences of a woman as she returns to a dying city (Quinzaine des Realisateurs)

In a work containing no tangible plot and relying on insinuation rather than explicit disclosure of the characters' motivations, Dagher evokes his lead's fractious relationship with the city to draw an elegiac portrait of a disaffected post-war generation; a treatise on an aimless youth inhabiting an aimless, self-immolating country on the brink of dissolution.

Dagher, who made history in 2015 by becoming the first Arab filmmaker to win the Cannes' Palm d'Or for best short film, lingers with his camera on the spare exteriors, using the deserted central Beirut area to simultaneously allude to the country's failed neo-liberal project and the emotional vacuum of his characters.     

Austere, brilliantly understated and uncompromising in its vision, Dagher's Cannes contender is a record of a nation craving for a change that never comes. Of the numerous films made about Lebanon in the past few years, no other has captured what it feels like to be a young person in Lebanon now as eloquently as The Sea Ahead.

2. Feathers

After making history by becoming the first Arab film to win the Grand Prize at Cannes' Semaine de la Critique competition, what was projected to be the most celebrated Egyptian film of 2021 rapidly became the most contentious and derided film of the year.

Egyptian Omar El Zohairy's debut feature boasts one of the most original premises in recent years: a tyrannical factory worker is accidently morphed into a chicken, leaving his helpless, poverty-stricken wife to fend for herself and her children.

Fronted by a cast comprised entirely of amateur actors, who show minimal emotions in the vein of French director Robert Bresson, the film is set in an unidentified place and time that negate direct comparison to the current Egyptian reality.

The passivity of his heroine may also work against his feminist discourse
The passivity of heroine Umm Mario (Demyana Nassar) may also work against film maker Omar El Zohairy's feminist discourse (Still Moving)

Shot mostly in still frames and imbued with a sinister dark humour, which includes some of the most inventive pop culture references featured in any Egyptian indie before, Feathers is the kind of bold formal experiment seldom seen in Egyptian cinema. It is an impeccably mounted black comedy that takes a perverse route in presenting its theme of independence and empowerment.  

There are legitimate question marks regarding Zohairy's aestheticisation of poverty; of his camera's compulsive fixation on the dirt and destitution and gaping mouths of his subjects.

Zohairy treads a thin line between ridicule and satire, and at times the audiences may find it difficult to tell if he's mocking his subjects or affectionately nodding towards their amusing shenanigans.

The passivity of his heroine may also work against his feminist discourse. But then again, that's what makes Feathers the most striking Middle Eastern debut of the year: its divisiveness, its twisted thematics, and its overall confrontational attitude. 

Feathers is a film difficult to love and easy to hate, and it doesn't really matter which camp you're in; the singularity and fearlessness of Zohiary's cinema shall continue to inspire debate for years to come. 

1. Mariner of the Mountains

The stock of acclaimed Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker Karim Ainouz has gone up exponentially with the massive success of his Cannes winner, Invisible Life (2019).

Now in this third decade of filmmaking, Ainouz has made a habit of constantly switching gears between documentary and fiction. While no stranger in permeating his films with autobiographical elements, his latest creation is his most personal to date.

Born to a Brazilian mother and an Algerian father, whom he saw for the first time when he was a teenager, Ainouz, now in his 50s, decides to visit his father's homeland for the first time and documents the trip.

The result is an immensely intimate travelogue, which touches upon Ainouz's signature themes: identity, belonging, destiny and alternate realities.

An autobiographical film of Karim Ainouz's discoveries in the native homeland of his once absent father (Screengrab)
Karim Ainouz's autobiographical film sees him visit the homeland of his once-absent father (VideoFilmes)

Adopting a diverse visual structure that combines hand-held camera footage, shaky phone-shot rushes, archival material, and carefully composed landscape images, each component of Ainouz's vibrant palette act as pieces of a fondly crafted, deeply moving visual diary of self-discovery that teems with poetry.

For someone who has always had a love-hate relationship with his hometown, Mariner of the Mountains hit me particularly hard.

The perceptiveness and delicacy of Ainouz's filmmaking moved me to tears; his multifaceted, deeply emotional odyssey luminously mirrors my generation's conflicted relationship with our Arab hometowns, a relationship fraught with anger, aggravation and the incapability of letting go.

Through Ainouz's clear-eyed depiction of Algeria, we get a vision of an Arab place we have longed to inhabit; an Arab place that may never manifest.

Now ranked as one of the world's most sought-after filmmakers, Ainouz is going to Hollywood next, directing Michelle Williams and Jude Law in the historical psychological horror, Firebrand.

A speedy return to the Arab world might not be on the cards in the near future, but with Mariner of the Mountains, Ainouz may have produced the best essay film about the Arab world, and the year's best Middle Eastern picture.