Category Archives: Arab Cinema

Films From the South #2: Man Without a Cellphone (Bidoun Mobile, Palestine/Israel/Fra/Bel/Qatar 2010)

Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh) uses his phone in the field by the mast as his father Salem (Basem Loulou) looks on.

This witty and sharp little film (only 78 mins) is one of several recent productions from Arab filmmakers that defy easy categorisation in institutional terms. Director Sameh Zoabi was born in a village close to Nazareth in 1975 and took a joint English and Film degree at Tel Aviv before completing a Masters in Film Direction at Columbia University in New York. This is his first feature after critical acclaim for his 2005 short film Be Quiet at Cannes. Supported by two Israeli Film Council backed funding bodies plus French and Belgian funding as well as support from Sundance and the Doha Film Institute, Man Without Cellphone pokes at the sore issue of Palestinian identity within Israel’s declared borders – Palestinian land first occupied after 1948, rather than in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

In a personal statement on the Memento Films website, Sameh Zoabi tells us:

Growing up, our own communities and schools are not integrated into the larger Israeli society. After high school, many young people flock to universities and the work place where they must interact with the larger Jewish-Israeli population for the first time. Leaving home is a major transition and time of self-discovery for young adults across all cultures, but it is particularly unique to Palestinian-Israelis, who come to realize their status as second class citizens with full force. In the media, the struggle for equal rights is overshadowed by the larger political milieu of the region, and is lacking in personal stories of everyday people.

In finding a way to explore these ‘personal stories’, Zoabi hits on a number of ideas that have also turned up in two other productions from the region, the Israeli film The Lemon Tree and the Palestinian film Rana’s Wedding. In this case it is not a Palestinian lemon orchard but an olive grove that sits next to an Israeli development. The new development is a mobile phone mast which improves the reception of the villagers (both Arab and Jewish communities) but angers the older farmers including Salem who owns the olives and believes the mast is sending out radiation to give the Arab villagers cancer and to ruin the olive crop. But his 20 year-old son Jawdat enjoys the new reception and is more interested in dating girls – Muslim or Christian Arabs, or even Jewish or Russian. The twist is that Jawdat has no real future because he keeps failing the Hebrew entrance test for university – unlike his sister who is already there. The plot requires Jawdat to be reconciled with his father in order to galvanise the community fight to have the phone tower removed and this is achieved (i.e. Jawdat does help) by that standby of Palestinian films, the need to get permission to cross into the West Bank (thus the link to Rana’s Wedding, a serio-comic film narrative about organising movement between Jerusalem and Ramallah). I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure of Man Without a Cellphone any more, suffice to say that the narrative device works well. I should also note that the interaction of the men and women (old and young) in the village is treated in ways similar to that in the Nadine Labaki film we saw yesterday.

I enjoyed the film very much. There are plenty of laughs and Jawdat and his friend Muhammad are very likeable characters. But the dig at both generational conflicts within the Palestinian communities and the unjust treatment of Arabs in Israel is clear throughout. I hope the film gets widely seen. My only concern is the length. ‘Short’ features like this often fail to get distribution or are shunned by audiences. I felt that some elements of the narrative could have been extended – but perhaps budget constraints were the problem.

Go here to see the ‘pitch preview’ of the film on the website of the Doha Film Institute.

Films From the South #1: Where Do We Go Now? (Lebanon/Fr/It/Egypt 2011)

In one of the more surreal moments in 'Where Do We Go Now?', three of the nightclub dancers sit by two of the village women who have engineered their arrival.

The Films From the South Festival opened strongly tonight with a real crowd-pleaser. Heidi Sandberg and Lasse Skagen, the festival’s Managing Director and Artistic Director respectively, opened the ten days of screenings and introduced Nadine Labaki, the director, co-writer and star of Where Do We Go Now? As the final credits rolled Ms Labaki received a deserved standing ovation for a film that will no doubt attract healthy audiences across the world following a highly successful opening in France and Lebanon.

The film’s title is taken from its last line of dialogue. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by explaining it, but in case you might think that a parting shot like this makes the film sound despairing, I hope you will be assured that it’s actually the opposite and filled with hope – while recognising that the problem hasn’t been solved yet.

I’ve been mulling over the various genre descriptions of the film such as ‘musical comedy’ and the inimitable Variety ‘dramedy’. I was surprised that there is a moment of real tragedy in the film. This definitely changes the overall tone of the film, sharpening up the comedy and adding to the real satirical edge which is there in the film underneath all the music and laughter. Where Do We Go Now? is clearly a follow-up to Labaki’s earlier Caramel, but also something ‘bigger’ in cinematic terms. Its use of music helps to propel it away from the more realist tone of the earlier film and towards something more fantastical.

Although most reports set the film in Lebanon, there aren’t any direct references to that country. It could really be set in any relatively isolated community. In this case the village is in the mountains, linked only to civilisation by a narrow track that is heavily mined on either side. The two teenage sons of the shopkeeper take their ‘scooter and trailer’ down the mountain each day to collect supplies. Meanwhile the women visit the village’s twin cemeteries, Christian and Muslim, replacing the flowers on the graves of husbands and sons lost in a civil war between sectarian groups. When the boys set up a new aerial on the hillside it brings both music radio and television channels to the village which gathers to usher in the millennium. But television also seems to bring seeds of discord, partly through the news of what is happening elsewhere in the country and partly through the sexualised imagery which inflames the passions of the men of all ages. Perhaps fittingly, the village women will eventually use sexual allure (in the form of a group of Ukrainian nightclub dancers) as a decoy device in order to prevent the men from reaching the inevitable conclusion of an outbreak of the civil war directly in the village itself – and that’s where the comedy comes in.

In a press interview (see below), Nadine Labaki says that she wanted the film to represent something that could happen in any village threatened by civil conflict of any sort, not just religious. But she does say that she was prompted to make the film when in May 2008, on the day she discovered that she was pregnant, Beirut once again moved into civil war mode:

“And I said to myself, if I had a son, what would I do to prevent him from picking up a gun and going out into the street? How far would I go to stop my child from going to see what’s happening outside and thinking he had to defend his building, his family or his beliefs? The idea for the film grew out of that.”

There are two main differences between this film and Caramel as I see it. The first is the scale of production. With more co-production partners, including support from both Canal + and the Doha Film Institute as well as Pathé (the international sales agents who will also distribute in much of Europe), the film was genuinely international and the budget was forecast as $6.7 million (Variety November 2010). I suspect that is quite large by Lebanese standards. I’m not sure if it was significant in attracting cinematographer Christophe Offenstein (who lensed the two Guillaume Canet Fims, Tell No One and Little White Lies). He certainly makes good use of the CinemaScope frame in the opening musical sequence and creates plenty of excitement in the composite village scenes (which were shot in three different Lebanese villages, one of which has its church and mosque close together). Despite the bigger budget, Labaki decided to stick with her original decision to use non-actors in most roles. I was sure that I’d seen some of the actors before but I was wrong. That’s a tribute I think to Labaki’s skill in moulding the performances of a large cast of non-professionals into such a wonderful ensemble.

The second difference is the injection of what Labaki calls “a mood of fairytale and fable” – via the use of music. I’d like to tell you that she drew on Indian popular cinema or Egyptian melodramas but she told her Cannes interviewer that it was Grease and the Disney animations Snow White and Cinderella that originally inspired her. The music is written by Labaki’s partner Khaled Mouzanar and the writing process is quite an organic part of writing the film. The words are by Tania Saleh and I’d like to listen to the songs again. I do think that the film feels oddly ‘universal’ and I thought of lots of other similar narratives from Greek tragedies and fairy tales to one of my favourite Cuban films, The Waiting List (2000) about a community of travellers trapped in a country bus station who create a kind of utopia. In Nadine Labaki’s film her isolated community in a sense create a fantasy about a world in which people work to avoid wars and to live with difference – now that is a political idea, isn’t it?

Download the Cannes Press Pack (pdf) here.

Unfortunately I couldn’t make the Q&A or the Press Conference given by Nadine Labaki in Oslo, but I hope to have more luck with the next festival guest, Eric Khoo from Singapore, whose films I’m seeing tomorrow.

Cineuropa ran a piece today on this festival, pointing out that there is a new initiative from Films From the South and the Norwegian Film Institute to set up a ‘South Fund’ encouraging co-productions between filmmakers from the South and Norwegian partners. The Norwegian government has pledged €1.3 million over 5 years and 13 potential projects have been selected for a forum to be held during this festival.

Films From the South Festival 2011

Oslo’s unique film festival celebrating films from Africa, Asia and Latin America opens on Thursday October 6 and we’ll be there to cover the first five days. The festival programme presents nearly 100 films organised in sections: ‘Main Competition’, New Horizons, Doc South, Asian Visions, Latin American Style, African Stories and Middle East Without Borders. The ‘Critical Room’ gives an opportunity to meet some of the directors featured in the documentary strand, focusing on Brazil and Afghanistan, and there are four directors given a showcase within the overall programme: Asghar Farhadi (Iran), Eric Khoo (Singapore), Matias Bize (Chile) and Fernando Pérez (Cuba). There is also a children’s section (this year exclusively animation) and an associated film education programme (dealing with films about Afghanistan) that takes film screenings beyond Oslo and into other areas of Norway. With associated art and music events, Oslo looks like a buzzing place over the next couple of weeks – can’t wait!

The women of a village threatened by war in Where Do We Go Now?

The opening film is Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? in which the Lebanese director offers a comedy-drama about how women can prevent men from going to war. Ms Labaki is the main guest of the festival and will present her film in person. This is perfectly timed as, after winning the audience prize at Toronto, Where Do We Go Now? has just opened as the biggest Arabic language film in Lebanese box office history. Following her earlier international hit Caramel, Where Do We Go Now? reinforces the emergence of a new kind of female identity in a region galvanised by the ‘Arab Spring’ – something picked up elsewhere in the festival with recent films from Egypt and Morocco. Watch this space for our verdict on Where Do We Go Now?

Festival website:

Son of Babylon (Iraq/UK/Fra/NL/Palestine/UAE/Egypt 2009)

The gateway to Baghdad

I’ve been trying for some time to catch this film which was produced out of Yorkshire with partners in several other countries. I was lucky to find it showing as part of the Hebden Bridge Arts Festival in July and with an accompanying Q&A with director Mohamed Al Daradji and producer Isabelle Stead. The only drawback was that distributors Dogwoof  had sent a DVD instead of a 35mm print to the 500 seat Hebden Bridge Picturehouse. The result was that a film shot on 35mm looked dark and pixellated on the big screen. Following a similar experience with Dogwoof’s Amreeka, I’m getting a bit cross with this practice. However, the usual healthy Hebden Bridge audience didn’t seem to have too many problems with the film and I didn’t have the heart to ask the director what he thought of the crappy image on screen after months spent carefully filming in Iraq. (Ironically, his company hires out their 35mm camera equipment to make much needed revenue.)

Mohamed Al Daradji was, as he told us, born in a poor part of Baghdad. He trained as a filmmaker in Hilversum in the Netherlands and in Leeds where he later founded Human Film (which also has a presence in the Netherlands and in Iraq). He was actually making his first film Ahlaam (Dreams) (2006) in Baghdad when he had the idea for Son of Babylon. The film has a very simple story. 12 year-old Ahmed travels with his grandmother, south from the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq to Baghdad in 2003 in search of his father Ibrahim who has been missing since the Gulf War in 1991. From Baghdad they travel on to a prison and then further south to check the mass graves that are being opened in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Al Daradji, in a Q&A downloadable from the Human Film website, has spoken about the influence of both Rossellini and Italian neo-realism in the late 1940s as well as more recent Iranian Cinema on his work in Iraq. I was certainly struck by the Rossellini comparisons and by the similarities between the Baghdad street scenes and images of Afghanistan in the work of the Makhmalbafs. Following the neo-realist approach, Al Daradji searched for non-actors for all the roles in the film. He filmed on location in six different Iraqi cities and took his story from ‘contemporary life’ or “from the world” as Rossellini suggested. The whole process was extremely difficult, not least because of the problems in getting footage sent back to the West for processing. Not surprisingly, Al Daradji says that he formed a close bond with his actors, especially the young boy whom he has since ‘mentored’.

The neo-realist approach has also caused other problems. The film’s ending is bleak – just like the prospects for many Iraqis. There is no attempt to fictionalise the ending by hinting at an optimistic future for the boy. Instead, the narrative effectively ends with the facts about the numbers of ‘missing’ in Iraq. This includes not only the 1 million and more lost in the three wars since 1980 but also the more than 150,000 since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The filmmakers have set up a campaign group with a UK base and charitable status: Iraq’s Missing Campaign. They have also started a petition which you can sign online. The website suggests many other ways to help – including help in promoting the film and I’m certainly willing to do that (but please persuade Dogwoof to get their act together!). Either of the two websites above will lead you to information on the film and the campaign.

I found the film gripping but painful to watch. The poor quality of the image in this particular screening means that I can’t comment on whether a more ‘beautiful’ image would have an effect on how an audience responds. The lack of a ‘happy ending’ is not a concern of course but there are always going to be questions about how to handle the emotional response that films like this generate. The filmmakers have attempted to channel that emotion into support for their campaign and that seems the right thing to do.

I have no direct knowledge of Iraq and therefore took what was offered at face value. However, after the screening I met a friend who was in Baghdad in 2003 (in a humanitarian aid capacity, I think). She pointed out that the street scenes shot in 2008 did not really represent how Baghdad looked in 2003 – in particular, the women in 2003 were dressed in much brighter clothing and were not routinely ‘covered’ to the same extent. If this is true it does undermine some aspects of the presentation. My friend also commented on the Kurdish elements of the story, suggesting that there were problems in giving the audience information about Kurdish culture in an artificial way in the dialogue. I don’t think that there is much that could be done about this – the audience for the film in the West would probably be lost without some explanation of Kurdish history. However, it does raise an interesting question about any assumptions we might have about Iraqi culture and the position of a distinctive separate community within the country. Al Daradji himself is an ‘outsider’ in terms of the Kurdish community and his discussions with his actors involved considerable amounts of translation. Of course, it would be good to know what the Kurds in Iraq thought about the film. Al Daradji was able to tell us about the screenings he held in the country (which now is without functioning cinemas as such) and unsurprisingly they were very well received. You can read about the screening in Baghdad in a Guardian interview and the film has I think now been shown in other parts of Iraq using mobile cinema kit.

A DVD release accompanied the film into UK cinemas and I’d urge you to rent or buy the DVD (or watch it online) and support the campaign.

Production Notes and more on the film from Dogwoof.

Cinema has an important role to play in telling stories like these from a personal perspective. Al Daradji has said that he feels that his film offers a distinctively alternative view of Iraq to those of the US/UK broadcast media.

The official trailer for the film:

al-Ard (The Land, Egypt 1969)

The villagers Abdel Hadi (Ezzat El Alaili) and Wassifa (Nagwa Ibrahim) in 'al-Ard'

My second film at the Liverpool Arabic Film Festival was a beautiful print (supposedly the only viewing print available and hired at considerable cost) of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 adaptation of a novel by Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi. The novel was written in the 1950s about events in the 1930s but the film’s appearance in the late 1960s still resonated, especially after the trauma of Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war against Israel.


The focus is on a small village in the Nile Delta region. The peasant farmers rely on Nile water to irrigate their crops, especially cotton as a cash crop. The authorities (in the 1930s Egypt was a semi-autonomous monarchy but still ultimately under British control) allow the fellaheen (peasants) 10 days of water (per year?). This is barely enough but then news filters through that the ration is to be reduced to 5 days. The villagers must organise themselves to protest and to put their case. However, there are different interests for the Mayor, the wealthier landowners and the local bey (noble rank) and they conspire to maintain their own status so that the main burden falls on the fellaheen. The central conflict focuses on Abou Swelem the most respected of the fellaheen, who has remained on the land while his two former comrades in the 1919 rising against the British have ‘progressed’ to positions in the town or in business and now carry the honorary title ‘sheikh‘. Abou Swelem (Mahmoud El Miligui) has a beautiful daughter Wassifa who is courted by a peasant farmer and by the educated son of one of the sheikhs. Eventually the villagers will have to fight for their land and their crops.


This long (130 minutes) film is beautifully directed and wonderfully acted by all concerned. The 35 mm print looked stunning – in Technicolor I assume? The film was shown in competition at Cannes in 1970 and this perhaps explains the quality of the subtitles.

In her book on Arab Cinema, Viola Shafik (American University in Cairo Press, 2007: 137) cites al-Ard as an example of ‘socialist realism’ but suggests that the ideology in the script is derived from the novel whose author expressed “an uncompromising Marxism” – rather than from the director, who she points out was from the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The only other Chahine film I’ve seen up to now is the 1958 Cairo Station. Shafik describes that title as ‘commercial realism’ using the generic conventions of the crime film. I think I need to revisit that film.

‘Socialist realism’ was the realist form developed in the Soviet Union after Stalin repressed the more experimental work of the 1920s. In many ways it mirrored the ‘Hollywood realism’ of the 1930s and 1940s except that it focused on the collectivist ideology of the workers’ state rather than the individualism of Hollywood. It was the form taken up by Chinese Cinema post 1949 and up to the mid 1960s. al-Ard, however, made me think not about Soviet or Chinese films but about Indian Cinema. The scenes of village life are reminiscent of Hindi ‘social films’ going back to Mehboob and Bimal Roy, though al-Ard being ten years later is more polished. The politics of the film suggest Indian parallel cinema, especially some of the films of Mrnal Sen. Although the film is essentially realist in its presentation, there are moments when short sequences of montage are used for emphasis. The narrative is ‘bookended’ by close-ups of the central character’s hands running the soil through his fingers at the beginning and being literally torn through the soil at the end. There are scenes of song and dance at a wedding and an almost erotic scene of a village woman bathing. The references to Indian Cinema are not too surprising given that the theme of struggles over land are universal. This specific narrative involving careful gradations of social class operating within a colonial framework is certainly very similar to conditions in much of India where British policy left in place feudal arrangements which allowed exploitation by larger landlords (cf the zamindar system in British India).

al-Ard is not a simplistic tale by any means. The various plot lines are brought together very carefully and we learn that the bey, while pretending to help the villagers is in fact using the potential dispute to make it easier to build himself a new road (using land taken from the peasants). To enforce this theft, troops are brought in. The sergeant in charge of these camel soldiers is himself a displaced peasant and he and Abou Swelem have an uneasy bond. But if I remember correctly, the soldier was displaced in order to build a dam – which aids everybody. The bey‘s road is also ‘modernisation’, but designed primarily to boost his private enterprise.  Abou Swelem recognises this like any good socialist. Abou Swelem’s daughter must choose between the brave and strong man who is seemingly a younger version of her father and the weak but educated man who represents the possibility of economic progress. The fair distribution of land has proved to be the major issue for many states following decolonisation. (Zimbabwe for instance?) It remains an issue to fuel political discourse. I hope that this wonderful film gets many more screenings.

The festival screening was introduced by Brian Whitaker, former Guardian Middle East Editor (and current online editor). I found this useful in picking out some of the interesting aspects of the narrative. Viewing the film in 2011 it’s salutary to note that the recent ‘revolution’ in Cairo was largely a middle-class affair amongst the educated youth. Millions of fellaheen still toil on the land for little reward as far as I can see.

al-Ard also played at Cornerhouse Manchester this week alongside Cairo Station so thanks to whoever secured the bookings. More please!

Marcides (Mercedes, Egypt/France 1993)

Gamel (centre) with his partner (left) in the gay community at the cinema in Marcides

To Liverpool for the ‘Arabic Film Festival’ at FACT (part of the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival). The ‘Arab Spring’ has increased interest in all aspects of Arab culture and this is a welcome event. I’m sure it is very difficult to get prints of Egyptian films into the UK, so I wasn’t too surprised that this particular film turned out to be on DVD. The quality was pretty ropey but quite watchable – better anyway than the experience of lolling about on squidgy sofas to watch a cinema screen which somebody thought was a good idea for patrons of ‘The Box’, the FACT space dedicated to more arty fare.

Marcides isn’t arty as such but it is a challenge for UK audiences. I think it is best described as a political and social satire presented in the format of popular melodrama. Written and directed by Yousry Nasrallah and starring one of Egypt’s major female icons, Yousra, the film was programmed because of the director’s links to the major Egyptian director, Youssef Chahine. Nasrallah (b. 1952) assisted Chahine and then had his own films produced by Chahine’s company, Misr Films. Nasrallah was first a journalist in Lebanon and then assisted Volker Schlöndorff in 1980. (See this Cannes posting)

Plot outline

Warda (Yousra) is first seen in flashback to 1956 at a VIP function interrupted by the British/French/Israeli attack on the Suez Canal. She is being put forward for marriage by her wealthy mother who doesn’t know that she is already pregnant after a liaison with an African diplomat. Quickly, we learn that she married a much older man who conveniently died soon after. Her first child, to her relief, is not visibly ‘African’ but she calls him Noubi (i.e. after ‘Nubian’). She later has another child she names Gamel (after Nasser) and who is passed off as her uncle’s boy. In 1990 these past events set up the melodrama when Noubi returns home after being incarcerated by his mother (under pressure) in an asylum – because he wanted to give money to the Communist Party! When his uncle marries and then collapses at the wedding, he tells Noubi that the family fortune is bequeathed to him and Gamel, who Noubi thinks is his cousin. All Noubi has to do is find Gamel and avoid the clutches of his new aunt Raifa (a lesbian with a drug problem).

Yousra as Afifa dances with Noubi (Zaki Abdel Wahab) on the streets

From this point on the melodrama develops at a frenetic pace. It involves all of the following – drugs, politics, corruption, people smuggling, Cairo’s underground gay community (in ‘slum cinemas’), street battles between the police and the Muslim Brotherhood, the fall of communist leaders in Eastern Europe and the 1990 World Cup in which Egypt played both Algeria and England. Yousra also appears as a second character, Afifa, a supposedly much younger woman making a living as a belly dancer who falls for Noubi and who in one scene performs for a night club audience. The star is thus fully utilised in twin roles separated by 34 years, looking little different. In fact Noubi is able to pass her off as his mother at one point. Noubi is played by an older actor with dyed blonde hair but none of this really matters. Scenes are underlined by musical cues and for melodrama fans this is a real treat. I enjoyed the film immensely even if there were aspects of the plot that puzzled me or that just whizzed by too quickly. (The title refers to the status symbol of ‘successful’ Egyptian life.)


I was intrigued to discover more about Yousra who is famous in Egypt for her TV drama appearances, including in that Egyptian institution the ‘Ramadan Soap’ or musalsalat. These serials, rather like Latin American telenovelas, include historical dramas and thrillers as well as romances. Up to 50 a year are produced in Egypt currently and they obvious draw away potential cinema audiences during Ramadan. Marcides was presumably a model for the way in which some of these shows have developed.  A great beauty and a popular music star, Yousra (b. 1955) has been seen as a modern star who accepted playing the mother role in narratives at a time when she could still be a romantic lead. Her celebrity status is such that she has become a much quoted figure in the Egyptian media.

Marcides was produced during one of the low points for Egyptian Cinema when popular films were often seen as too formulaic. In this film, Nasrallah is possibly satirising the formula by offering title cards to head each ‘chapter’ of the film. Usually these introduce a new character perspective but the last one announced ‘The happy ending’ – which turns out to be just a little ironic. I’m not sure how effective Nasrallah’s satire is but it is interesting that the story links the oppression of gays, the Muslim Brotherhood and football supporters in seemingly a general critique of those in power. The overall narrative offers the ‘downward descent’ of a rich young man from a Christian élite who finds that the life ‘underground’ is more acceptable. There are quite a few laughs in the film but these are undercut by some of the more disturbing images – such as coffins returning from Iraq with the bodies of Egyptian contract labourers.

Marcides received a couple of American reviews which clearly have problems trying to understand the film. It perhaps acts as a good example of films that don’t travel easily – in this case beyond the Arab world. It’s available on DVD from Arab Film Distributors, but only for institutional screenings at $200 per show.

Here’s a 2008 interview with Yousra on Al Jazeera (in English):

Incendies (Canada/France 2010)

Lubna Azabal and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as mother and daughter in ‘Incendies’

If this film’s relatively low-key UK release has slipped under your radar, I urge you to sniff it out and go see. Undoubtedly one of the films of the year in the UK, it claims to be 130 mins long but it seemed like 90 mins. I was gripped for every second. It is a powerful film that often achieves its impact by understatement – but still leaves you awestruck at the end.

The narrative is partly a mystery so I’ll avoid spoilers. The set-up is something like a Wilkie Collins narrative. After a pre-credit sequence set somewhere in the ‘Middle East’ (or ‘the Levant’ as the French used to call it) the narrative switches to Quebec where twins Simon and Jeanne are sitting before a notary who is reading their mother’s will. She was his secretary in the legal practice so the notary feels almost like family. It is a strange will which involves each of the twins being given a letter. One is required to find another sibling who is unknown to them. The other is required to find the father they had assumed was dead. The narrative then unfolds in parallel strands – one relating the events as the twins travel (separately) to their mother’s native country and the other via flashbacks revealing some of the various terrible events that the mother experienced directly.

The country and the history are never identified. The film was shot in Jordan but the nature of the events (Christian-Muslim conflict in a civil war) suggests Lebanon. The film doesn’t attempt to explain anything about the war as such. It is simply ‘shocking’. The reviewer for the World Socialist Website finds this problematic. I agree that the war does need to be contextualised in terms of anti-Imperialist struggles, but I think a filmmaker should be allowed to focus on a personal history – and in any case, the conflicts of this region are highly complex and can’t easily be explained in global political terms.

The original ‘property’ was a stage play by Wajdi Mouawad who left Lebanon as an 8 year-old in 1976, initially for France but then for Montreal. His play has been performed and very well received around the world. The four central characters are all exceptionally well-played by three Canadians and Lubna Azabal who is the Belgian-born daughter of Moroccan and Spanish parents. She’s probably best known as the ‘exile’ in the Palestinian film Paradise Now (2005). I’ve seen a complaint about her ‘Moroccan Arabic’ but that seems a pointless remark about a character in a film where her native country is not identified. (She presumably also speaks French with a Belgian not Montreal accent, but so what?) Anyway, she is sensationally good, especially since she must age 30 years. It’s a performance not to be missed – like the film.

Sight and Sound made this its ‘Film of the Month’ in July 2011. The same issue includes an interview with director Denis Villeneuve.

(Sony) Official website with Press Kit etc.

Official Canadian trailer: