Mideast/North African Films Jostle for Oscar Shortlist Attention

Although this year’s Middle Eastern/North African Oscar submissions have yet to generate a strong buzz, there are titles among the 10 films that could be contenders for the international feature short list.

Chief among them is “Sun Children” from veteran Iranian helmer Majid Majidi, whose 1997 “Children of Heaven” landed a foreign-language film nomination. This gripping drama about exploited urban street kids is cast with charismatic, non-pro performers and earned an acting award at the Venice fest for its resilient young protagonist. Strand Films will release.

A possible dark horse is “Broken Keys,” the feature debut of Lebanese multi-hyphenate Jimmy Keyrouz. It marks an expansion of his 2016 Student Academy Award-winner “Nocturne in Black” about a musician in a Syrian town controlled by ISIS. Sporting the Cannes Label, this tense drama, with a score by Keyrouz’s famous compatriot Gabriel Yared, shares the combination of real-life crisis and sweeping emotion that characterizes some past nominees.

If sundry festival awards could make an Oscar winner, then Sudan’s visually assured drama “You Will Die at 20” and Israel’s poignant, mother-daughter study “Asia” would have the inside track. The former, the feature debut of Amjad Abu Alala, premiered at the 2019 Venice fest where it bagged the prestigious Lion of the Future kudo. Set in an isolated village where superstition constrains the population, it follows the difficult coming of age of a young man who received a disturbing prophecy at birth.

“Asia,” from debuting helmer Ruthy Pribar, was a multiple winner at the Jerusalem and Tribeca festivals.

It centers on an attractive Russian émigré nurse and single mother, and her relationship with her ailing teen daughter, played by Emmy nominee Shira Haas (“Unorthodox”). Menemsha Films is releasing this quiet, emotionally acute drama.

Also boasting several festival awards are two films about the cruel absurdity of life in the Palestinian territories. Simple but enraging, the Jordanian entry “200 Meters” marks the feature debut of Palestine-born Ameen Nayfeh. The title signifies the distance between the home of the protagonist, Mustafa, in the Occupied Territories, and the dwelling of his wife and children in Israel, behind the border wall. Unlike the rest of his nuclear family, Mustafa is not an Israeli citizen, and requires a work permit in order to cross the border. When his permit expires and an emergency requires his presence in Israel, he is forced to deal with people smugglers.

In the droll Palestinian entry “Gaza Mon Amour,” the sophomore feature of twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser (“Dégradé”), the minimalist action unfolds against a backdrop of the many limitations governing life in Gaza.

The performances of top Palestinian stars Salim Daw as a grumpy bachelor and Hiam Abbas (“Succession”) as a pious widow elevate the piece.

In contrast, a more hopeful look at life and love comes from the compelling Egyptian entry “When We’re Born,” a tender, humanist drama from indie helmer Tamer Ezzat that makes innovative use of music. Three stories of when everyday life and ambitions conflict, forcing hard choices, find counterpoint and connection in a musical narration composed by Amir Eid, lead singer-songwriter of the popular Egyptian band the Cairokees. The lanky Eid also makes a convincing acting debut as the sensitive protagonist of one of the episodes.

Tunisia’s provocative entry, “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” from writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania (“Beauty and the Dogs”), combines the humanitarian crisis in Syria with the vagaries of the international art market to ask some uncomfortable questions about the price of a human life. “Skin’s” plot involves a displaced Syrian who lets a cryptic art world guru tattoo his back with a Schengen visa, then finds it easier to travel to Europe as an artwork than as a refugee. This ambitious international co-production, which some may find a tad too long and a tad too far-fetched, nevertheless confirms Ben Hania as a talent to watch.

Also signaling important new director-writer talents are Morocco’s “The Unknown Saint” from Alaa Eddine Aljem and Saudi Arabia’s “Scales” from Shahad Ameen, which is set for a Variance Films release. “Saint” is an entertaining, absurdist fable about spirituality and greed. It follows a thief who buries a bag of loot near a derelict desert village, disguising the spot as a grave. Years later, when he returns to retrieve his booty, he is astonished and frustrated to find that a mausoleum honoring an “unknown saint” credited with performing healing miracles now covers the site.

“Scales” is set in an isolated village where families must sacrifice a daughter to monstrous sea maidens and draws an elemental power from Arabic folklore using imposing black-and-white visuals. Distaff helmer Ameen believes that the film acts as a catalyst for wider conversations about gender roles, beliefs and feminism in the Arab world. It represents the desert kingdom’s fourth Oscar submission and third by a female director.

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