Three to see at LFF if you like... films from the Middle East

Elhum Shakerifar recommends three hot tickets at this year’s BFI London Film Festival: a film by an established director, a great debut, and a wild card.

Elhum Shakerifar
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The new film from an established director …

Farouk, Besieged like Me

Farouk, Besieged like Me (2016)

Farouk, Besieged like Me (2016)

What’s it about?

This is a film about the things we’re not talking about when it comes to Syria – literature, food, identity, cross-cultural understanding. These things that have defined the lives of Farouk Mardam Bey and Hala Alabdalla – subject and director of the film – who are both in many ways bridges between their own cultures and those of their adopted country: France. 

Recently exiled in Paris, Hala Alabdalla’s career as a director began after many years of collaborating with some of the most prominent Syrian directors including Omar Amiralay, Oussama Mohammed and Mohammed Malas. Her documentary style is distinctive in that it incorporates the process of making in its form, while her subject matter has often underlined the role of art and culture in defining identities present and future. 

What’s special about it?

The fundamental question of identity is one that is currently being lost in the news depictions of Syria, a country that has been undergoing brutal destruction at the hands of its own president for more than five years now – depictions of which are shared daily, but with no lasting effect whatsoever. It’s safe to say that there hasn’t been another film like this one since the conflict began, and yet its potency is in exactly this – by no means ignoring the backdrop against which their reflections take place, Alabdalla, Mardam Bey and a host of writers and thinkers talk about poetry, identity, language, friendship and displacement, underlining the very human scale on which we are not understanding Syria today.

The breakthrough …

Tramontane

Tramontane (2016)

Tramontane (2016)

What’s it about?

Rabih is a young blind musician; when his group is invited on tour, he applies for a passport only to realise that his paperwork is problematic and a search for his real identity begins. Memory and collective silence are challenged as Rabih tries to piece together where he was born, who his ‘real’ family was.

Who made it?

Lebanese director Vatche Boulghourjian’s first feature premiered at the prestigious Cannes’ Critics Week, returning to the festival after picking up a prize at the Cannes Cinéfondation with his film school short six years earlier. 

What’s special about it?

As past and present collide for Rabih, Boulghourjian subtly reflects Lebanon’s confused history – its 15-year civil war, which stretched from the mid-70s till the early 90s, leaving in its wake a legacy of mass displacements, unexplained disappearances and silenced stories. The role of art and culture in holding up a mirror to our present-day realities, in relaying truths and understanding the amnesia that surrounds complex histories is conveyed through Rabih’s voice in his songs, which make up the film’s mesmerising score. 

The wild card …

Wolf and Sheep

Wolf and Sheep (2016)

Wolf and Sheep (2016)

What’s it about?

When their father dies, two young shepherd brothers must leave their flock and friends to live far away with their older sister, as their mother marries another man. Throughout the film, we see the everyday life they will leave behind – sheep, slingshots, omnipresent fear of a wolf attack. We also learn about the adult world from the children – through their gossip, challenges of each other and cautionary tales gleaned from conversations here and there. While there is much posturing on the surface between different shepherd groups, girls and boys, there are also delicate friendships flowering quietly against the striking backdrop of rural Afghanistan. 

Who made it?

The film is inspired by writer-director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s own teenage years spent in a remote village in central Afghanistan. A few years later, in 2010, she was the youngest director to ever be selected for the Cannes Cinéfondation Residency. Wolf and Sheep is her debut feature; it picked up top prize at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight where it premiered earlier this year and marks a brave and unique new voice. 

What’s special about it?

Working with all non-professional cast, Sadat weaves together the roughness of rural life with a touch of magical realism that bring the country’s rich traditions and storytelling culture to the fore. Sadat’s seldom seen Afghanistan may be a challenge in how different it is to preconceived media-shaped ideas and a country you may think you know about – but these new frames with which to view Afghanistan are vital and beautiful.

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