Knowledge production is never a neutral process; it is always shaped by the belief systems and biases of those in a position to research and produce knowledge in books, articles, reports, films or art. While knowledge about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region produced in academia, think-tanks and NGOs is channelled towards governmental and transnational policy, representations of these places in films and documentaries possess an altogether different potency, that of shaping public opinion about the region and the people who live there. This is a more subtle process, of absorption, one that builds up in different layers over time to create images and assumptions about religions, histories, people, and places that feed into the opinions we hold about these contexts.
Drawing on research conducted for the Arab Studies Institute’s Knowledge Production Project, this article looks at the success of films set in the MENA region released between 2009-2019 at European and US film festivals to gauge the kinds of representation, narratives, and perspectives that receive international acclaim, and as a result go on to reach wider Western audiences. Success on US and European festival circuits can lead to international exposure and distribution deals and can result in films being specifically marketed to these audiences. Western festivals therefore function as both shapers and disseminators of knowledge about the region.
Underpinning my research is an identification of the fifty-five highest awarded MENA films and documentaries released between 2009-2019 (the top five of each year), a timeframe encompassing the ongoing US-led “war on terror,” the Arab uprisings and the ensuing civil wars, and the ongoing Israeli Occupation. Cinematic representations of these processes and their outcomes warrant analysis for their instrumental role in shaping, reinforcing, or challenging public opinion not only about the region and Islam, but also towards migrants, refugees, and citizens of Middle Eastern and North African descent in Europe and the US. This bank of films is a starting point for analyzing key elements that result in certain films and documentaries being deemed “suitable,” “interesting,” and “marketable” for US and European audiences in the eyes of festival jurists. These elements, when viewed over time, emerge as trends revealing the most popular country settings, highly geo-politicized production dynamics, and recurring themes, subjects, and perspectives that crop up repeatedly in Europe and the US’ most celebrated films on the MENA region.
Films and documentaries set in Palestine and Israel constituted fifteen (27%) of the fifty-five highest awarded films in this period. This was more than double the second most popular country setting, Syria, which appeared seven times, closely followed by Lebanonand Iran, each with six films, and Iraq with five. The overwhelming success of films set in the Levant could be explained by several factors. Given their current political contexts and recent histories of occupation and civil war, juries and audiences are likely to have an increased awareness of this geographical pocket of the region. This may also be compounded by their histories of British and French mandate systems following the First World War, pointing to the persistence of the colonial imagination, here expressed in the realm of culture. What remains clear, and is reflective of a general silence in the media, is the abounding lack of films about Libya and Yemen. While this is certainly related to smaller film industries in these countries, there remains a question mark over why Western countries have flocked towards producing and co-producing a multitude of films about Syria, purportedly in order to inform global audiences about the civil war and civilian experiences of it, yet Yemen, as it currently experiences the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, has not received similar attention. Of the fifty-five highest awarded films only one, Yemeniettes (US/YE 2014: nine awards), was set in Yemen while Libya was not represented at all.
Forty-three (78%) of the most successful films about the MENA region between 2009-2019 were made as co-productions with both Arab and European or American production companies working on them. The high number of international co-productions is followed by films produced solely by America or European countries (eleven). France produced/co-produced twenty-four of the fifty-five films selected, making it the biggest national producer of the films surveyed, followed by the USA, involved in a total of eighteen films. Conversely, films made autonomously by production companies in the MENA region are almost entirely absent from this list with the exception of the Oscar-nominated Omar (PL 2013: eight awards) which, due to a funder pulling out at the last minute, was the first-ever film to have 95% of its costs funded by Palestinians. This is with the exception of Israel, which ranked fifth for the number of internationally acclaimed films it produced/co-produced (a total of ten), all of which dealt with Israel or Israel and Palestine. Palestinian production companies in comparison produced/co-produced six highly awarded films, meaning that Palestinian narratives and perspectives are almost half as likely to be awarded and therefore seen by Western audiences, revealing Israel’s success, in filmmaking as in politics, in representing both Israel and Palestine on its own terms.
[Still from Omar (2013). Courtesy of the Match Factory. Copyright Hani Abu-Assad.]
One of the reasons for the lack of solely MENA produced films winning at Western film festivals is the result of inadequate state support and cinema funding systems for independent films in many MENA countries. This has created a dependency on European and US funding, which often comes attached to technical and/or artistic conditions and in turn, can have substantial implications for the direction a film takes. In her article “Untold Stories”, author and producer, Irit Neidhardt, states that these dynamics call for an economic analysis of MENA films to understand how funding influences “what subjects…[films] need to deal with and how do the stories have to be told in order to meet the requirements of the market?” That all seven films about Syria deal with the civil war and all received European and US funding is a clear example of how funding is instrumental in shaping which stories are told and how.
Sami Abd Elbaki’s article for VICE Arabia “Why Oscar-nominated Syrian films frustrate me” highlights four key features spanning films about the Syrian Civil War that received Best Documentary nominations at the Oscars between 2017-2019. All nominated films represent an anti-regime position fitting an American geopolitical agenda and were funded and produced by European countries. Consequently, these films were banned from being screened and streamed in Syria and resulted in their directors being banned from entering Syria. Abd Elbaki describes the bind that Syrian filmmakers are in whereby external funders are only interested in the topic of war and the current humanitarian crisis from a specific perspective, while funding from the Syrian government is dependent on portraying the regime as a “heroic entity.” Syrian filmmakers, therefore, stand to lose either national and regional audiences (not to mention their safety and freedom of movement) or Western audiences due to the highly politicized nature of funding.
In “Three Films, One Spectator and A Polemic: Arab Documentaries and ‘Global’ Audiences”, filmmaker, writer and curator, Alia Ayman points to three strategies often used in “world cinema” to make documentaries marketable to global audiences that often result in “simplistic, cliched, and politically problematic” films: the inclusion of background knowledge that would be superfluous for local audiences, the use of English as a main language rather than the subjects’ native tongue, and “the consolidation of a narrative at the expense of maintaining the almost always deeply fragmented political nuances of their story.” I will return to this criterion later in my analysis of documentaries about Palestine and Israel.
US Productions: Revisiting American Foreign Policy
Of the eighteen films produced/co-produced by the US, five dealt with American foreign policy in the region. American Sniper (US 2014: seventeen awards) and Incident in New Baghdad (US 2011: four awards) focus on the militarized, American male experience of the war in Iraq and the PTSD the protagonists developed. In contrast, the documentary Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) (IQ/FR 2015: five awards) focuses on everyday life for Iraqis before and at the time of the invasion, while Nowhere to Hide (NLD/US/IR 2016: seven awards) is a five-year study of one man’s work as a nurse in central Iraq, one of the most dangerous areas in the world. Both are shot by Iraqi directors and re-center the narrative, putting the Iraqi civilian experience of the invasion at the forefront. These films won five and seven awards respectively, while American Sniper won seventeen awards, including one Oscar, was the highest-grossing film of 2014 in the US, and the highest-grossing war film of all time worldwide. Given its box office success and global reach, what messages does the film portray about Iraqis? And how are Americans and American values positioned as oppositional to Iraqi norms, values, and lives?
The opening scene of American Sniper in which an Iraqi mother gives a grenade to her young son to throw at a tank carrying American soldiers as it descends onto their street establishes the dehumanizing lens through which local people are presented throughout the film. The protagonist, who is a sniper, kills both of them, deeming the mother “evil,” presumably because of the nexus of femaleness, motherhood, and violence bound up in this act. This is in contrast with the gendered representation of the American military where only men are shown to commit violence. Female soldiers are present only in off-duty scenes, and back home the central female characters are mothers and wives. Degrading language towards Arabs is used throughout the film as a TV report showing footage of Iraqi soldiers killing American soldiers are described as “savages” and a soldier in an American training camp shouts “I came here to kill terrorists” during an exercise. All local people shown in the film are affiliated with local militias thereby stripping them of civilian innocence; and there is zero attempt at contextualizing the American presence in Iraq other than in snippets from TV news reporting on anti-American terrorism in the lead-up to 9/11.
2012 saw the release of Argo (US: ninety awards), which dramatized the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The revisiting of this episode at a time of ongoing US-led wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, largely legitimized by the perspective of a historic “clash of civilizations” and America’s “duty” to protect democracy and “Western values,” is interesting to say the least. While Argo begins with a short animation providing context for Western audiences about the lead-up to the crisis and America’s shady dealings with the Shah of Iran, it fails to provide a nuanced depiction of the revolutionaries (moderate revolutionaries in the film are non-existent) who are depicted as angry and violent mobs. The reasons behind their anger are not fleshed out i.e. America’s instrumental role in overthrowing the democratically elected government in 1953, growing economic disparity and the brutality of the secret police (established with the help of the CIA), nor are protestors’ demands for a more equal society centred as a driving force of the demonstrations. The film instead opts to reproduce a simplistic “us” versus “them” dichotomy in which the country’s youth is swept up in an anti-American violent political Islam. That Argo was the highest awarded film across this whole period says a lot about the kind of history that US and European film festivals are happy to revisit.
Female Filmmakers and Protagonists
A gendered analysis of the directors behind the most successful films about the MENA region indicates increasing numbers of female film directors winning awards. Between 2009-2013 this figure stood at 27%, while between 2015-2019 it rose to 37%. Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki and Palestinian director Annmarie Jacir are two particularly renowned figures who have consistently received accolades for their films on different subject matters at international film festivals in this period and preceding it. Nadine Labaki was the first ever Arab woman to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film with Capernaum(LB/US/FR/CY/QA/UK 2018: eighteen awards) and both she and Annmarie Jacir have taken on jury roles at major festivals in recent years. Labaki was the first ever Arab President of the Un Certain Regard jury at Cannes in 2019 and both directors joined the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that votes on the Oscars, in 2018, signaling an opening up of the European and US academies to groups that have been historically excluded from these spaces. Director Haifaa al-Mansour also deserves mention for her film Wadjda, (SA/NLD/DE/JO/UAE 2012: eighteen awards), the first film ever to be filmed in Saudi Arabia.
An assessment of storylines across the fifty-five films also reveals an increasing interest over the decade in the experiences and perspectives of women and girls, including more nuanced explorations of femininity such as in Mustang (TU/FR/GR/QA 2015: thirty-five awards) and Gulistan, Land of Roses (CA/DE 2016: four awards). Of course, interest in the West around gender dynamics, and women’s experiences more specifically, in the Middle East is nothing new, however, the relatively high numbers of successful female filmmakers in the region suggests that women are increasingly involved in deciding how to represent women and their experiences, and are agents in collapsing an enduring Western narrative of saving the “oppressed women” of the region. Four out of the five highest awarded films of 2019 (For Sama (UK/SYR: forty-six awards), The Cave (DNK/DE/FR/UK/US/QA: sixteen awards), Papicha (FR/AL/BE/QA: seven awards) and Advocate (CH/ISR/CA: six awards), for example, explored experiences of the Syrian civil war, the Algerian Civil War and the occupation of Palestine, through the eyes of female protagonists.
[Still from Papicha (2019). Courtesy of Jour2Fête. Copyright Mounia Meddour.]
Themes in Palestinian-Israeli Documentaries
The key themes that stand out across the seven highest awarded documentaries about Palestine and Israel are non-violent resistance, a critique of the Israeli occupation, and the potential for reconciliation and coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis. These documentaries, to a certain extent, do challenge mainstream Western narratives about Palestine and Israel, most notably for the sheer fact that they represent an array of nuanced Palestinian and Israeli perspectives that span from Haifa to Gaza, across generations, gender, and outlooks that are rarely shown in mainstream media.
The emphasis on reconciliation and coexistence, however, can be problematic if it ignores the essential component of justice given that in order to achieve a positive peace, as opposed to peace merely devoid of overt physical violence, justice for Palestinians is a prerequisite. Minimizing this essential fact risks painting Palestinians and Israelis as representing two equal sides in a conflict, obscuring Israel’s status as a settler-colonial state and occupier. Within this context, to call for reconciliation and co-existence is both premature and misleading for audiences as it simplifies the political realities on the ground, negating the primary need for justice on a range of issues such as the right of return, an end to illegal settlement building, an end to the blockade on Gaza and equal rights in law for Palestinians and Israelis before reconciliation can be explored.
Women in Sink (UK/ISR 2015: eight awards) and My So-Called Enemy (US 2010: five awards) are two films that explore themes of co-existence and reconciliation between Palestinian and Israeli girls and women. My So-Called Enemy follows six Palestinian and Israeli young women as they embark on a US-based cross-cultural leadership programme called “Building Bridges for Peace,” which seeks to “equip resilient young leaders to transform divisive attitudes in their communities” through the development of “personal connections based on empathy and respect.” While empathy and respect are fundamental values in any context, the official synopsis of the film states that “creating relationships across political, racial, religious, cultural and physical divides are first steps towards resolving conflict.” This objective absolves the Israeli state from ending the illegal occupation and its human rights abuses of Palestinians in both The Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel, and instead places the responsibility for “conflict resolution” in the hands of individuals, notably women. Some of the women do manage to build enduring friendships yet these relationships are increasingly tested by the reality on the ground, as discussions frequently circle round to the underpinning political issues that remain unresolved despite the fact that empathy enables the exchanges.
[Still from Women in Sink (2015). Courtesy of go2films. Copyright Iris Zaki.]
The principle behind the project is explained by the American facilitator of the project who states that women can bring a different perspective and approach to “peace-making.” Not only does this language reinforce the highly crafted political narrative that prioritizes “peace” and skirts the need for justice, the film also focusses on the power of “soft,” traditionally feminine qualities of empathy, listening, and sharing emotions, rather than qualities such as resistance, activism, and strength – the latter qualities embodied by Iltezam Morrar, the protagonist of Budrus: It Takes a Village to Unite the Most Divided People on Earth (ISR/PAL/US 2009: six awards) in dismantling the very system which divides Israelis and Palestinians in the first place.
The sentiment of women being more naturally effective peacemakers/builders is echoed in Women in Sink, a short film shot in a hair salon run by a Christian Palestinian woman in Haifa. In one conversation, a client confidently describes the dynamic of the hair salon as “authentic co-existence, it’s the real thing.” This is despite the owner stating at the beginning that 80% of her clients are “Jewish.” The client elaborates to explain that this space is evidence that “people do get along, when it’s far from leaders and politics. Especially women. …[I]f women were in charge of our government we would have lived in peace ages ago. Women have the sensitivity, the ability to communicate, to understand each other.”
In the synopsis, Christian Palestinians living in Israel are described as “Christian Arabs” and the film is said to investigate “Arab-Jewish coexistence” through informal conversations as women have their hair washed. The semantics of these statements are noteworthy as they efface not only the existence of Palestine and Palestinians through the use of the descriptor “Arab(s),” but also the Palestinian experience of The Nakba in Haifa which has shaped the very conditions of this particular space.
Encounters between Palestinians and Israelis are not confined to documentaries. In three of the seven most successful feature films about Palestine and Israel (Out in the Dark (US/ISR 2012: fifteen awards), Tel Aviv on Fire (LU/BE/ISR/FR 2018: seven awards) and Ave Maria (PAL/FR/DE 2015: six awards), the meeting of Palestinians and Israelis through romantic relationships, friendships or chance encounters form the central theme of the film, underlining that this angle resonates most with Western audiences. Certainly, stories about relationships (platonic or otherwise) across political and conflictual fault lines hold sway in public imaginations – Romeo and Juliet being the classic example. More recently and relevantly, Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh’s 2018 book Where the Line is Drawn explores his own fragile bonds of friendship across the Israel-Palestine border, writing that “[i]n our small way, our friendship exposed the lie peddled by Netanyahu and his followers to Israeli people and the world, that the Arab is the fundamental and eternal enemy of the Jew.” Such relationships, and their cinematographic and literary representations, certainly have value, if produced from a critical and sensitive standpoint but again, individual stories of friendships and relationships should not become substitutes for justice-focused discussions, depictions, and approaches in film and documentary making. If this is missing or compromised, we are merely left with an emotive and hollow sugar-coating of reality.
Non-violent Palestinian-led resistance against the erection of what has been termed “The Apartheid Wall” through village lands and arbitrary Israeli military intimidation and violence is the focus of Budrus and 5 Broken Cameras (PAL/ISR/FR/NDL 2011: thirteen awards). Budrus documents the evolution of a local non-violent resistance movement launched by a father and daughter. The film gives particular attention to women’s activism as it explores solidarity between Palestinians, Israelis, international activists, opposing Palestinian political factions, and men and women. 5 Broken Cameras tells a similar story of village resistance, though, in contrast to Budrus, it features almost exclusively male participation on the frontline of protests and in confrontations with the Israeli military. While the two films are very similar, 5 Broken Cameras won over twice the numbers of awards as Budrus, prompting the question, what changed between their respective years of release in 2009 and 2011? It may well be that resistance to the escalated building of the wall and earlier films such as Budrus generated a period of international consciousness-raising that came to bear on the reception of subsequent films at festivals, such as 5 Broken Cameras. We might also consider that ten years ago, in a cultural landscape in which discussions on gender and identity politics had not yet been mainstreamed, nor did youth activists have the digital tools or visibility they have today, Western film festivals were less primed to respond positively to a film focused on a young Palestinian female activist.
[Still from 5 Broken Cameras (2011). Courtesy of Kino Lorber Theatrical. Copyright Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi.]
Alia Ayman’s point that documentaries made for “global audiences” have a tendency to simplify narratives, is evidenced in the closing scene of Budrus, which ends on a hopeful note as the village wins back 95% of their lands. Although positive as a single case and a blueprint for other villages facing similar threats, the film neglects to draw attention to the ongoing and less successful struggles against land annexation up and down the green line, ultimately communicating a simplistic message about the effectiveness of non-violent resistance in a context defined by deep power asymmetries.
Gaza (IE/PAL 2019: six awards) is a quieter and more poetic critique of the Israeli occupation than films such as Advocate(CH/ISR/CA 2019: six awards), which convey an explicit political position. It is a beautifully shot portrait of Gaza’s population and puts the joys and challenges of daily life center stage, focusing on the stuff of life: family, friendship, play, work, leisure, hope, fear and grief, for a varied group of protagonists. Against a backdrop of the economic embargo, food, electricity and fishing restrictions, cramped living conditions, arbitrary collective punishment, and wounded young men, we also see the joy at weddings and the return of prisoners, children playing in the sea, an eccentric theatre director rehearsing for a show, an upbeat taxi driver struggling to make a living bantering with his clients, and a teenage cellist who dreams of studying abroad. While not making overt statements about Israeli policy, the film’s position is clear that Gazans must have their human rights upheld and the opportunity to live normal lives. The film has clearly been made for an international audience to challenge the dominant narratives and images of Hamas and violence that surround Gaza internationally. Instead, it humanizes the people that live there, lays bare the conditions of life perpetrated by Israel’s blockade and frequent military attacks, and conveys the message, spoken by one paramedic, that “We want to live…That’s what people need to know. That we don’t want to be injured or killed. We simply want to live.”
[Still from Gaza (2019). Courtesy of Film Option Internationa. Copyright Andrew McConnell and Garry Keane.]
What emerges throughout this analysis is the pervasiveness of the Western gaze and Western interests in determining not only the international success of a film, but often its very existence. This operates as a continuum throughout the life cycle of films - running through financing decisions, vis-a-vis the involvement of European and US production companies in MENA films, and going on to shape their reception at festivals. That MENA film-makers and production companies continue to struggle to represent the region and its stories on their own terms without Western involvement is problematic as it reproduces a historic pattern whereby the West, through its economic and cultural hegemony, continues to produce the region according to its own agenda in academia and culture. As we have seen, this has a knock-on effect creating a substantial imbalance in the geographical areas, subjects, and perspectives that are given attention and in the political messages communicated to Western audiences.
This said, the highest awarded films of the past decade do overall point to a general departure from what the scholar Jack Shaheen described as Hollywood’s distorted, dehumanizing, and persistent paradigm of Arabs as “heartless, brutal and uncivilised religious fanatics,” very rarely depicting them as “normal” people who audiences can identify or empathize with. The increasing number of female directors from the region receiving funding for their projects and recognition at festivals, and the popularity of storylines that focus on ordinary peoples’ lives, particularly from the perspectives of women, children, and minority groups, marks a meaningful shift towards more multifaceted storytelling and knowledge production about the region. In the worlds of Mai Masri, the acclaimed Palestinian director, “[i]n the end, cinema is a form of writing history, the history that has not been written.” In addition, that the vast majority of these films have been co-produced with companies and directors in the region, a far greater number than in the past, is a testament to a growing awareness in Europe and the US that local directors and production companies are indispensable for the knowledge, insight, nuance, and creativity they can bring to filmmaking about the MENA region.
 For Sama (UK/SYR 2018: forty-six awards), Last Men in Aleppo (DNK/SYR 2017: twenty-two awards), The Cave(DNK/DE/FR/UK/US/QAT 2019: sixteen awards, In Syria (FR/BEL/LBN 2017: fifteen awards), City of Ghosts (US 2017: fourteen awards), Still Recording (LEB/SYR/FR/QAT/DE 2018: eight awards) and The Return to Homs (SYR/DE 2013: six awards).
 Raja Shehadeh, Where the Line is Drawn: Crossing Boundaries in Occupied Palestine (Profile Books Ltd, London: 2018), p. 225-6.
 For a discussion on apartheid in Palestine and Israel see Ben White, Cracks in the Wall Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel (Pluto Press, London: 2018)
 Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 588, Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities (Jul. 2003), p. 171.