Ruba Asfahani
Last updated: 17 September, 2014

5 must-see films from the festival of popular Arab cinema

Ruba Asfahani, a self-confessed cinephile and Communications Manager at The Arab British Centre, lists her top five films from the upcoming Safar: The Festival of Popular Arab Cinema.

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Traitors was originally conceived as a short in 2011 and then made into a feature film last year. The director is award-winning actor Sean Gullette who I loved in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, so I was very excited to see this film, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Mixing a fantastic soundtrack with stellar performances by the lead actress Chaimae Ben Acha, Traitors will have you hooked, fixating on Malika (Ben Acha) and her strong, pure heart which leads her into trouble as well as success.

Since seeing Soufia Issami (Amal) in Sur La Planche last year, I have been captivated by her presence on screen. In Traitors she is the final straw that breaks Malika’s character in deciding what to do next (I don’t want to give too much away)… Issami and Ben Acha are absolute powerhouses in Traitors and make a fantastic team in Gullette’s debut. I can’t wait to see what’s next from all three of them.

Screening at Safar Sunday 21 September 18:30

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Salvation Army is another directorial debut that we have on offer during the film week. Salvation Army is based on a book by the director/author Abdellah Taia. If the book had you captivated, then you won’t be disappointed by the film adaptation.

Salvation Army offers a charged tale about a young graduate who must navigate the sexual, racial and political intrigue surrounding his arrival in Geneva. Taia’s coming-of-age story folds and unfolds with love, pain, desire and violence.

Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, incredibly poignant, Salvation Army has the makings of a major Arab motion-picture that will stand the test of time and hopefully have audiences across the globe excited about Taia both as a filmmaker and author. 

Screening at Safar Tuesday 23 September 18:30

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Jumana Manna’s Blessed Blessed Oblivion gives us an insight into the very manly side of East Jerusalem. The film stands out for several reasons; from using Culture Beat’s 90s classic Mr Vain to the opening “joke” to the blasé use of strong language to the incredible access that Manna was able to get to these guys in Jerusalem. I can’t wait to see what else Manna has up her sleeve, she’s definitely a director to watch.

Screening at Safar as part of AN EVENING OF SHORTS, Wednesday 24 September 18:30

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Ziad Doueiri’s modern classic is everything that cinema should be; poignant, thought-provoking, beautiful, well-acted, perfectly-scripted, upsetting, hilarious and most-importantly, honest.

Set during the Civil War in Beirut, the story focuses on two young boys who record and experience everything around them through the lens of a Super 8 camera. What begins with funny and charming scenes soon descends into chaos and tragedy, viewed by us through the eyes of the wonderful Tarek and Omar, based on director Doueiri and his own brother’s experiences of Beirut in the 70s and 80s.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to see this film, but perhaps the words of Doueiri can help: “I hope that the word of mouth will spread quickly, giving a positive impression about the Middle East, actually – that we’re not all savages, we’re not all terrorists or ‘camel jockeys,’ or whatever that comes with it.”

Screening at Safar Wednesday 24 September 20:10

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Last, but definitely not least, on my list of “must-see” films during Safar is in fact the oldest movie in our festival, Al Asfour, from 1972. We’re so lucky to be showcasing this digitally remastered gem by Youssef Chahine, arguably the most famous Arab film director to have ever lived!

The film is set just before the Six Day War in Egypt (1967) and follows Chahine’s “sparrows”; the people of Egypt whom others (ab)used to get rich quickly. This vivid portrait of a nation in chaos is a film with plenty of sub-plots to keep you on your toes. It was originally banned in Egypt in 1973 before going on to become one of Chahine’s most popular films.

THE MAIN STORY follows a young police officer (Raouf) searching for his father and brother, but all the while he is stationed in a small village whose inhabitants (the sparrows) are suffering at the hands of corrupt businessmen. After meeting a journalist, Raouf helps uncover a scandal involving high-ranking officials. If I carry on, I’ll ruin the film but rest assured, you’ll be able to see why it was originally banned.

“I make my films first for myself. Then for my family. Then for Alexandria. Then for Egypt,” Chahine once famously said. “If the Arab world likes them, ahlan wa sahlan (welcome). If the foreign audience likes them, they are doubly welcome.”

Screening at Safar Sunday 21 September 13:30.
The whole programme for Safar: The Festival of Popular Arab Cinema can be seen here.