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Could 2016 mark a breakthrough for Arab films at the Oscars?

In the last decade, more films from the Arab world have been nominated, but the sterotyping of Arabs in Western film is still prevalent
(L-R) British-born Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar and British producer Rupert Lloyd after winning outstanding debut by a British writer, director or producer for 'Theeb' at the BAFTA British Academy Film Awards 2016 (AFP)

Only in the past decade have films from the Arab world even registered as blips on the Oscar radar. Even as recently as 2014, the controversial yet Oscar-nominated movie American Sniper proved once again that dead Arabs are more Academy-worthy than live ones telling their own stories - as far as nominations go.

Enter Theeb. Directed by Jordanian Naji Abu Nowar, the film has been considered the “anti-Lawrence of Arabia,” by film critic Joseph Fahim. This year, it has gained Jordan’s first nomination for an Oscar and is one of the few films from the Arab world to have garnered a nomination.

Potentially boosting it's Oscar potential is the fact that it just won a BAFTA in the category of Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. With the BAFTAs seen as an indicator of potential Oscar success, this bodes well for the film's prospects, but an Oscar win is by no means a certainty. 

Theeb (right, Jacir Eid) and his brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) star in the Jordanian Bedouin film Theeb, set in 1916 (Film Movement)

Set in the same period as that of Lawrence of Arabia - the Arab Revolts - Theeb is a Bedouin desert “eastern” that takes place in 1916 Hejaz during World War I. A coming-of-age story, the eponymous film centres on a child protagonist, Theeb (“wolf” in Arabic), who goes on a dangerous journey across the desert with his brother, Hussein, who is also serving as a guide to another Arab and a British soldier. More importantly, the story is being told from the heart of the Arab world - this isn’t the perspective of a coloniser, affirming the significance of “telling our stories,” according to Fahim.

While most films from the Arab world have attracted attention for revolving around fixed themes - immigration, wars, revolutions, terrorism, women’s emancipation - Theeb deviates from this narrative. Not overtly political, it is first and foremost an adventure film rendered in a minimalistic, albeit gripping, manner.

Certainly, since the Foreign Language Film category was established in 1956, submissions from the Arab world to the Academy have been numerous, but the number of nominations has been small - most of them quite recent. As for actual Oscars, these are practically nonexistent. Egypt has submitted a film every year since 1956 - including a few films by the legendary director Youssef Chahine. In fact, the first film from the Arab and African world to be submitted for nomination was Chahine’s classic Cairo Station in 1958, and it also became the first to be snubbed for a nomination.

While Morocco’s number of submissions may be less than Egypt’s and definitely more ramped up in the last decade, it’s still quite significant - with acclaimed director and French favourite Nabil Ayouch featuring prominently in nominations.

Algeria is the one country that has received a handful of nominations, including, the Italian-Algerian production Le Bal and the French-Algerian Z. And, it has won once for Z. However, while considered Algerian due to a co-producer, the French film didn’t tell an Arab story or a story relevant to the indigenous Kabyle/ Amazigh of the region. The film portrayed the assassination of a Greek politician; neither did it feature their work - it didn’t star any Arab actors and neither were the director or screenwriter Arabs. All this considered, if Theeb wins, it would really be the first film from the Arab world to win an Oscar in the Foreign Language Film category.

Have films from the Arab world been under-represented at the Academy Awards? Most definitely. But why? Film critic Fahim speaking to Middle East Eye, expressed frustration with the film output of the entire region, saying it “lacks consistency”. On the other hand, he is also seeing movies from the region “proving Arab movies have an audience universally - that they are not just ‘festival movies’ - but they would travel well.”

While he thinks the Oscars are political and the political attention that a nation or region attracts is often one of the reasons for nominations, Fahim bemoans the unpredictable tides of the Arab Spring - or as Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha has put it, the Arab Spring Industry - wherein a nation is the flavour of the moment just as soon as another takes its place.

This might be why in 2014, a couple of years after the regional uprisings, three films from the Arab world received nominations - unprecedented in the Academy Awards. The Egyptian documentary The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim, was nominated for the documentary feature category, and it narrates protests galvanised around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Karama Has No Walls by Yemeni-Scottish Sara Ishaq was up for the Oscar Documentary Shorts. The short film recounts a protest in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa that turned deadly when snipers gunned down dozens of protesters. And, Palestinian film Omar, directed by Hany Abu-Assad, tells a story of love and collaboration in the occupied territories.

Acclaimed filmmaker Annemarie Jacir (Salt of this Sea and When I Saw You) confirms the lack of representation but points to the way Arab film industries are dependent upon their governments when it comes to the foreign-language film category: “Arab films cannot qualify unless they are officially put forward by their ‘representative,’ usually the ministry of culture of that country. I think there are very few films that actually get put forward officially so the fault really lies with our representatives and organisations.”

She adds: “Europe is much more open to cinema from the Arab world, and independent cinema in general. The US is a different market, and in general they look for films from the Arab world that are told in a certain way - films or characters that confirm their own clichés of the region.”

Yet, it is difficult to ignore the significance of a nomination by the Academy Awards. Certainly, the awards show is an American institution (with the exception of the "foreign" film category). But the show attracts international support for both nominated and award-winning films. Doesn’t the nomination of Arab films at the Oscars signal an American and international cinematic recognition of the vitality of Arabic cinema and the strength of its aesthetic?

Like Jacir, Theeb’s executive producer Nadine Toukan confirms that the Academy Awards is an American institution and a celebration of Hollywood films. The Foreign-Language Film category does not leave much space for competition. But she feels that the region needs to start generating their own spaces and competitions for Arab films: “The Oscars belong to the country and industry that created them, so I don’t feel entitled that they ought to be terribly concerned about our films. The time feels right for our region to start thinking of creating environments, programmes and competitions that are homegrown, relevant, and inclusive, where remarkable work is celebrated.”

Will Theeb’s nomination open up opportunities for other filmmakers from Jordan? In terms of Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, his nomination for the film Paradise Now in 2005 has attracted funding that has made filmmaking less strenuous. Since that watershed nomination, the last decade has seen more films than ever make the nomination list. Abu-Assad went on to make Omar, which was also nominated in 2013. Yet, a nomination isn’t quite an automatic formula for great national filmmaking - and neither is funding unfortunately. For example, the Oscar-nominated Saudi production Wadjda (2012) was not followed by a remarkable overflow of well-made Saudi films as might have been expected.

While funding from the Gulf region, particularly the Doha Film Institute, has been a major boost to the renaissance of films from the Arab world in the last decade, the opposite has been the case in Jordan. The Jordan Film Commission has significantly reduced its funding for filmmakers over the past few years. Jacir explains how this affected the production of Theeb: “The producers of Theeb speak about how they struggled to find local support at the beginning and indeed were even rejected by the Jordan Film Fund, a fund which was created to support the local industry. Strangely, the only two films rejected from the fund were the two most ‘local’ films, completely local stories with local crew.” Particularly with Jordanian filmmaking as it stands now, a nomination is not going to automatically lead to a series of film productions - unless financing is sought elsewhere.

Film and theatre scholar Michael Najjar is less optimistic about the nomination. He states: “In a year when diversity in the Oscars is such an issue, it seems that this is both a positive sign but also reinforces the fact that we still have not seen true diversity reflected in the Oscar nominations, especially regarding Arabs in film.”

After all, it’s not just the Foreign-Language Film category that’s open to films from the Arab world. This year, Ave Maria, by British-Palestinian director Basil Khalil, was nominated for the category of Short Action Film.

Thus far, talent from the Middle East and North Africa has hardly been considered for a nomination, much less a feature of the awards show. Until they gather more than a few nominations in one category, “Arabs and Arab Americans will have to live on the margins of the industry either playing stereotypical roles in mainstream films, or creating films abroad that get nominated for the prizes that are given off-camera,” adds Najjar. “Unfortunate, but that is the current reality.”

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