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By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
Four Arab Films were nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, held this past Sunday. While they didn’t win a 92d edition of the Awards golden statue, they are nevertheless worthy of further recognition. Arab America takes a brief look at three of these films, then focuses its lens on one in particular.
Film descriptions are based on the writing of Leyal Khalife, Executive Editor of StepFeed.
Brotherhood (Tunisia) Oscar nomination in the Best Live Action Short Film category
Tunisian-Canadian film director Meryam Joobeur is all about telling “a human story” with her Oscar-nominated film Brotherhood (Ikhwene). The film, which scored a nomination on Monday, tells the story of a Tunisian shepherd’s son who comes home after being gone for several years … with a new Syrian wife who wears the niqab. The father grows concerned with his radicalized son, sparking tensions in the family dynamic altogether. The so-called Islamic State is “the undercurrent of the story” but the film’s themes extend beyond that, touching on family and communication strongly throughout the film. The film won big at the Toronto International Film Festival under the “Best Canadian Short Film” category.
Nefta Football Club (Tunisia) Oscar nomination in the Best Live Action Short Film category
Nefta Football Club, which is also competing under the “Best Live Action Short Film” category, is directed by French Yves Piat and Damien Meghrebi, features Arab actors, and is an Arabic-language film. It tells the story of two football fan brothers who come across a headphones-wearing donkey in the desert along the border of Algeria. Little did the boys know that the donkey was being used as bait for a drug deal, and so they took the animal back home with them. The film has won several awards since its release including the Audience Award at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.
For Sama (Syria) Oscar nomination in the Best Live Action Short Film and Best Documentary Feature categories
For Sama, a Syrian documentary directed by Emmy award-winning filmmakers Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts, follows real events that occurred in Al-Kateab’s life. The documentary centers around the fall of Aleppo through Al-Kataeb’s lens; she used her camera to document and capture stories about love, war, loss, and motherhood over the course of five years in war-torn Aleppo. The film is dedicated to – and named after – the director’s daughter, Sama. It won big at the Cannes Film Festival last year, taking home the Prix L’Œil d’Or (Golden Eye Prize) in May 2019.
The Cave (Syria) Oscar nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category
Directed by Syrian Firas Fayyad, The Cave tells the moving story of Syrian female doctors who claim their right to work as equals alongside male colleagues in a patriarchal society that permeates war-ridden Syria. The documentary follows the lives of pediatricians and managing physician Dr. Amani Ballour and her colleagues as they save lives in an underground medical center. Together they defy odds under “daily bombardments, chronic supply shortages and the ever-present threat of chemical attacks.” Last month, the film’s director was denied an entry visa to the U.S. due to his nationality because, under President Donald Trump’s administration, people holding passports from Muslim-majority Syria, Yemen, Iran, Libya, and Somalia either have difficulties entering the U.S. or are simply turned down.
Leyal Khalife writes that you can watch Brotherhood and Nefta Football Club on Vimeo, courtesy of the filmmakers. For Sama is streaming on PBS – depending on your location and you can stream The Cave on-demand on Amazon or Fandango Now.
Focus on Oscar nominee, ‘For Sama’: Battle of Aleppo serves as a horrid backdrop for Syrian Woman’s poignant documentary
Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, attacked Aleppo, the country’s largest city, unmercifully from 2012-2016. Home to Syrian opposition groups that are largely Sunni, Assad’s Shi’a backers including Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Russia, pummeled this historic, architecturally-important city with airstrikes in Syria’s ongoing civil war. Some 33,000 buildings were destroyed and 32,000 civilians and rebels killed by haphazard aerial strikes. Even hospitals were targeted. Syrian and Russian air forces used chemical weapons and cluster bombs to indiscriminately take out the Aleppo opposition and innocent civilians. The battle effectively ended in 2016. With all its carnage it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Syrian civil war.
“For Sama” is one Syrian woman’s attempt to capture the carnage of the war and to dedicate her documentary to her newborn daughter, whom she named Sama. This is an Arab girl’s name, meaning “the sky” or “beautiful, like the sky.” The name juxtaposes the ugliness of warfare to the simple beauty of the sky and a little newborn girl. The documentary is about the larger picture of the war and the horrific details of its death and destruction. It also movingly encapsulates a story about love and the departure of the new couple from its beloved city.
Directed by its filmmaker, Waad al-Kateab with subsequent editorial assistance from a British director, Edward Watts, “For Sama” takes us through the war, especially focused on the hospital where she worked and met her future physician husband. The documentary evolves from a love letter to her newborn daughter, through her falling in love, marrying the doctor, then saying farewell to her beloved, but collapsing city. “For Sama” has won numerous awards internationally and has been broadcast on the American PBS station WGBH in one of its premier series, Frontline.
Waad al-Kateab took hundreds of hours of film of the siege of Aleppo. According to The Guardian, there is a scene in the film that “perfectly encapsulates its mixture of horror and hope. In the terrible aftermath of yet another airstrike, a pregnant woman with broken limbs and shrapnel in her belly is brought into a makeshift theatre in al-Quds hospital. An emergency cesarean brings her critically unresponsive child into this world of carnage – a terrible, pitiable sight, made all the more unwatchable by the certainty that nothing so vulnerable could possibly survive such violence.”
As she is filming, Waad meets a newly-minted medic, Hamza, at the hospital, one of few remaining physicians, and they bond over her passion for recording the growing violence and his need to care for the critically injured. It becomes a love story, resulting in their marriage and the birth of their daughter, Sama. They end up living in the hospital, al-Quds (Holy Spirit) as the violence grows daily and even have to move buildings as the hospital is destroyed. The documentary is designed as both a love letter and a description of the reality of a gruesome war.
Waad wants to justify to their daughter why they stayed for the duration of the war, asking her, “Will you blame me for staying here or blame me for leaving? I need you to understand why your father and I made the choices we did.” The film shows footage of dead bodies, the day-to-day conditions of life in the hospital, as “fire falls from the sky.”
“Movies from Tunisia and Syria nabbed the four available seats,” Leyal Khalife Executive Editor, StepFeed, 1/14/2020
“Affecting chronicle of life in war-torn Aleppo—‘For Sama,’” The Guardian, 2/2020
“Syrian film-maker Waad al-Kateab documents both the city’s violent siege and the birth of her daughter,” The Observer, 2/2020
John Mason, who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has done fieldwork in the Arabized-Berber Oasis of Augila, Cyrenaica, Libya; taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi and the American University in Cairo; served on the United Nations staff in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively with USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries on socioeconomic and political development.