Experts surveyed by Dubai International Film Festival choose their all-time best movies. Words Dominic Beesley
To compile this conclusive list, Dubai International Film Festival surveyed more than 1,000 specialists across the world. To ensure that the results were comprehensively representative of the various generations of Arab film history, a wide selection of ages and professions were contacted. Among those consulted were directors, critics, producers, programmers, technicians, screenwriters and cultural luminaries, including novelists with links to filmmaking. This unique list is the most complete ever, so we thought we’d share it with you.
1 The Mummy (Al Mummia), 1969 Based on a true story, the plot centres on 40 mummies that were found in the desert in 1881. Artefacts of national and historical importance, the family who first uncovered the corpses decided to sell them rather than let the government find out. The film focuses on a young protagonist who’s torn between staying loyal to his father, who’s attempting to profit from the discovery, and his country – a classic metaphor for the dilemma of family versus the state.
2 Cairo Station (Bab El Hadid) 1958 This tragedy was put forward for the 31st Academy Awards, but in the end it failed to receive a nomination. Critics hated it, but since then it’s become one of the Arab world’s most-loved films. The movie was unusual for its time, with no happy ending or real heroes, instead focusing on a handful of characters over the course of one day. It follows the narrative of a disabled newspaper-seller who falls in love with a woman, becoming increasingly obsessed with her, before eventually plotting her death.
3 Chronicle of the Years of Embers (Waqaa Seneen Al Jamr), 1975 Set over 15 years, this epic addresses the Algerian people’s struggle for independence, as seen through the eyes of Ahmed, a young peasant. Ahmed’s story is a reflection of the Algerian people’s plight from the outset of World War II in 1939 up to the revolution in 1954. The film’s director, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, was awarded the Palme d’Or in 1975 – the only time in history the accolade has gone to an Arab director.
4 The Land (Al Ard), 1969 This adaptation of Abderrahman Charkawi’s novel of the same name deals with a conflict between peasants and their landlord in 1930s Egypt. The landlord wants a new road, but since this means destroying the peasants’ fields, they rebel. As the title implies, this depiction of the peasants’ struggle addresses Egyptian land ownership and how this affects its population, especially for those who rely on it for survival.
5 The Silences of the Palace (Samt El Qusur), 1994 Alia is called back to the house she grew up in when the owner dies. Her mother still works there, a maid and mistress to her employer. As she explores her former home, Alia finds herself haunted by memories of her childhood. Much of the film, though, is enigmatic and mysterious, particularly the character’s behaviour and the identity of Alia’s father.
6 Dreams of the City (Ahlam El Madina), 1983 This chronicle of Syrian history, set in the 1950s, tells the story of a young boy called Dib, who journeys to Damascus with his widowed mother and brother following the death of his father. The diverse group of characters he encounters addresses the different factions within the Syrian population, in the context of the politics of the time, and the collapsing dictatorship of Adib Shiskakli.
7 Divine Intervention (Yadon Ilaheyya), 2001 Elia Suleiman’s second film is difficult to classify, but is best described as a surreal comedy about life in Palestine. Most of the scenes are unconnected, such as Santa Claus being stabbed, or a woman destroying military towers just by looking at them. Part of the film, though, tells the story of a man trying to visit his girlfriend – a character played by Suleiman himself.
8 Kit Kat, 1991 Although set in Egyptian alleys, with a blind old man as its hero, this film is full of poetry and laughter. Sheikh Hosny is an elderly gent, who tries to forget his disability by smoking. Despite his blindness, Hosny comes to learn everything about his neighbours, and the film’s climax sees him accidentally blurting his compatriots’ hidden desires and repressed feelings out over a microphone, destroying the barriers that people build between each other.
9 West Beirut (West Beyrouth), 1998 After working on several films in America, West Beirut’s director Ziad Doueiri moved back to the Lebanese capital to direct this, his first feature film. It shows the Civil War (which Doueiri witnessed the start of, before leaving the country for America), through the eyes of teenagers and as the film progresses, we see them gradually lose their innocence.
10 The Dupes (Al-Makhdu’un), 1972 Based on a novella by Ghassan Kanafani, this film follows three Palestinian men who attempt to leave their lives of poverty and journey to Kuwait. They endeavour to do this by hiding in a water tank on a truck, but tragically die. The movie shows their journey to their corpses being abandoned, telling their stories through occasional flashbacks.