With last year’s surprise nominee “The Man Who Sold His Skin” hailing from Tunisia, Oscar handicappers should be sure to give West Asia and North Africa titles close scrutiny this time around.
Among the 11 submissions are several titles likely to be highly competitive in the international feature category. These include Iran’s social media critique “A Hero” from previous two-time winner Asghar Farhadi; Israel’s “Let It Be Morning”, a wry satire helmed by Eran Kolirin, about a Palestinian village put under military lockdown by the Israeli army; and Lebanon’s “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” a darkly comic commentary on the realities of modern-day Lebanon from feature debutant Mounia Akl.
Although “A Hero” may not be prime Farhadi, it already boasts the Grand Prix from Cannes. The narrative focuses on one of life’s losers, a likeable working-class man who, while on a short furlough from debtors prison, engineers events so he looks like a winner. Soon, however, he’s tripped up by his own lies and bad decisions, the consequences of which are amplified by viral social media.
“Let It Be Morning” is only the second Israeli entry after 2016’s “Sandstorm” in which the main characters are Arabs. The narrative, freely adapted from a novel by Sayed Kashua, displays a deep understanding of the code-switching, compartmentalized existence of certain Palestinian citizens of Israel. And it also makes note of their limited rights. Director Kolirin may get a boost from the fact that the musical theater version of his earlier film, “The Band’s Visit,” is playing a limited engagement at the Pantages Theatre in L.A.
Akl’s multi-layered drama “Costa Brava, Lebanon” centers on a family that fled the pollution and social unrest of Beirut only to find their utopian off-the-grid existence threatened by a toxic waste dump on their doorstep. The film boasts an audience award from the London Film Festival and stars Oscar-nominee Nadine Labaki. The production is also notable for the green measures implemented on set to create sustainability (recycling, saving water and electricity, reducing carbon emissions), aiming to create a protocol that can be adopted by other film crews in Lebanon and the rest of the region.
Among possible dark horses for the shortlist, consider another four titles, including Iraq’s entry, the intense, near-wordless drama “Europa” from Italian-Iraqi helmer Haider Rashid. Playing like a thriller, it follows a young migrant on the Balkan route as he becomes lost in a Bulgarian forest and must flee for his life while pursued by men with guns and dogs. The recent distressing news about the fate of migrants on the bordeByr of Belarus and Eastern Europe lends the film additional currency.
Director Nabil Ayouch represents Morocco for the fifth time with the high-energy entry “Casablanca Beats.” The naturalistic action takes place at an arts center that Ayouch co-founded in Casablanca’s sprawling shantytown Sidi Moumen. It’s the same neighborhood where the helmer set his 2012 feature “Horses of God.” He uses current and former students of the center’s dance, hip-hop and rap programs in a touching, fictional film based on their lives.
Algeria’s submission, the sweeping patriotic melodrama “Heliopolis” from helmer Djaffar Gacem, neatly uses the alliances of a fictional Muslim family to explicate events leading up to the brutal killings of indigenous Algerian civilians and the summary execution of native political leaders by French settler militias and soldiers in 1945. Although old-fashioned in style compared to the other submissions from the region, the subject matter of collective traumas during colonial times previously earned nominations for several titles directed by Gacem’s compatriot Rachid Bouchareb.
Jordan’s entry, “Amira,” comes from Egyptian helmer Mohamed Diab, who is next due to enter the Marvel universe with the Disney Plus series “Moon Knight.” Although the plot dealing with a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail and the child he supposedly fathered with smuggled sperm attracted some scornful trade reviews, the film received a lot of love from audiences during its Venice Horizons premiere as well as several non-statutory prizes.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s entry, “Souad,” from director Ayten Amin is the first of the country’s 36 submissions to be directed by a woman. Set in a small conservative city on the Nile Delta, the film offers an emotionally layered story of contemporary teenage life. Centering on two sisters, it illustrates the authentic and sometimes tragic consequences resulting from harsh, imbalanced societal dynamics clashing with the aspirations of social media-obsessed youth.
The Palestinian submission, “The Stranger,” introduces a new talent to watch in director-writer Ameer Fakher Eldin. Set in the Occupied Golan Heights, it follows a former doctor suffering from an existential crisis, who tries to redeem himself by helping a man wounded in the Syrian war.
The social-issues drama “The Tambour of Retribution,” from helmer Abdulaziz Alshelahi marks only the fifth Saudi submission. It’s the first fiction film set amongst the working-class Black Saudi community of Riyadh. Currently screening on Netflix, it focuses on the barriers to a love match between the son of an executioner and the daughter of a wedding singer. However, viewers may find the cultural differences more fascinating than any felicities of filmmaking.
Finally, Tunisia looks unlikely to make it past the submission stage with “Golden Butterfly” from Abdelhamid Bouchnak. While the director’s 2018 horror film “Dachra” continues to review strongly at fright and fantasy fests, “Butterfly” is another sort of beast. It mixes a violent, angry cop story with a more fantastical, sentimental strand that ultimately leads said cop to a reconciliation with his brutal, alcoholic father.
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