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Netflix celebrates Arab cinema with dozens of new releases

With 58 new releases, Middle East Eye gives some picks to get you started
Oscar-winning documentary 'White Helmets' follows Syrian emergency workers operating in the midst of a brutal conflict (Netflix)

Netflix has released a new collection of Arabic language films, including the Oscar-winning documentary White Helmets.

Titled Celebrating Arab Cinema, the collection of 58 works by 47 filmmakers includes works by directors Nadine Labaki, Annemarie Jacir, Elia Suleiman and Ziad Doueiri.

Netflix's director of acquisition for the MENA region, Nuha El Tayeb, said the launch of the collection was aimed at giving younger audiences an introduction to Arab cinema.

“The collection features true masterpieces of cinema, including award-winning and globally recognised films, such as the BAFTA-winning The Present and Lift Like a Girl, which won three awards at the 2020 Cairo International Film Festival," El-Tayeb said, adding the release reflected the diversity of the Arab world.

Besides the narrative features, the collection also includes a number of documentaries, including White Helmets, which follows teams of rescuers working in the midst of the Syrian civil war.

The latest releases add to Netflix's already growing catalogue of Arab productions, including 32 Palestinian films and documentaries released in October.

With so much to choose from, Middle East Eye suggests three picks to get you started:

White Helmets (2016)

Running at just over 40 minutes, this Oscar-winning short documentary follows the lives of three White Helmet rescuers as they train in Turkey and put their skills to the test in war-torn Aleppo.

Much of what the viewers see is filmed by a volunteer on the ground, combined with other amateur footage of Syrian air force raids on rebel-held territory.

At points, the footage is haltingly shocking. It is clear that filmmakers Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, by refusing to mask the realities of the war, want to confront their audience about its own response to the Syrian conflict.

Given that the Syrian war has largely fallen off the news agenda, there might be a temptation to view the events depicted in White Helmets through a more detached historic lens.

However, with significant chunks of Syria still under rebel control and the spectre of government offensives ever present, there is always a very real possibility that the documentary will find newfound relevance.

The Present (2020)

Farah Nabulsi's award-winning short film that was also nominated for the Oscars, The Present portrays the everyday reality for Palestinians living under occupation, where even the seemingly banal chore of buying a fridge becomes a Kafkaesque farce.

Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri (Bonbone and Giraffada)  plays Yusuf, a man who wants to buy his wife a fridge for their wedding anniversary.

He takes their young daughter along for a gruelling journey traversing Israeli checkpoints from the West Bank to Beitunia. Along the way, Yusuf and Yasmine (played by Mariam Kanj) must put up with humiliating treatment and violence.

What makes the 24-minute film so powerful is how Yusuf seeks to shield his daughter from the indignities he faces from the Israeli soldiers by playing down their treatment.

Filmed over a six-day period, Nabulsi incorporated real footage from checkpoints to heighten the sense of realism.

"The only fiction in that scene is our protagonist, Yusuf. All the other hundreds of Palestinians you see there are actual Palestinians going to work at the crack of dawn," she said.

Lift Like A Girl (2020)

This fly-on-the-wall documentary set in Egypt’s port city of Alexandria follows 14-year old Asmaa as she trains to become the country’s next female weight-lifting champion.

Egypt is already home to several top female weightlifters, including world champion and Olympian Nahla Ramadan.

Her father Captain Ramadan features in the film and is an irate former weightlifter himself, challenging the girls at his outdoor gym to “lift like a man”.

He affectionately calls Asmaa "Zebiba", which means raisin in Arabic, but that’s where the kid gloves come off. Seeing real potential in Zebiba, he berates her more than the other aspiring weightlifters.

A debut film for Egyptian producer Mayye Zayed, the documentary skilfully shines a light on female empowerment within patriarchal structures.

The complex relationship between coach and athlete is the main focus of the film, which has won awards at several film festivals since.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.