The Art & Exploration of Middle Eastern Cinema

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Censorship is a trademark of fascist and communist regimes. We saw it in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. We continue to witness it in North Korea, China, Cuba and the list goes on. In America we view our freedom of the press as an everyday way of life–a privilege we often don’t recognize while throwing scorn at other countries for it. With Trump’s Muslim ban, enacted last week, we saw the first inklings of shutting out the outside world.

 As a result of the ban many families and refugees were left treading water in a place they have or would be calling home. The ban’s effects even reached Hollywood. Oscar winning director, Asghar Farhadi revealead he would not be able to attend the upcoming Academy Award ceremony, of which he is nominated for his film “The Salesman” because of the ban. Actress Golshifteh Farahani of this year’s “Paterson” and of Farhadi’s 2009’s “About Elly” revealed she could lose a role because of the ban.

 These are just the first inklings of what could come but there is something we can do–a small protest we don’t have to leave our houses or partake in: watch movies. Remember, first they ban the directors, then the actors and then the movies. It isolates us and intensifies our nationalism–our “America First” attitude. But what films give us is empathy, knowledge and understanding. It helps us look at other people and other cultures and understand their way of life.

I’ve created a list of Middle Eastern films that one can stream online. What is disappointing but not at all surprising is how few Middle Eastern films we have available to us despite the numerous new avenues we have to the possibilities of such content. Many of the seven countries affected by the Muslim ban–Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan–do not have many accessible films. This is because these countries, specifically Iran, have strict censorship laws. Iran, surprisingly, is one of the Middle Eastern countries with the most accessible cinema library, the next being Israel and Palestine, despite several of the films below following Iranian filmmakers who were jailed for their art.

 Please take advantage of this assortment. Learn from them. Share them with the rest of the world.

 

Amazon Prime:

 

 “Before the Revolution” dir. by Dan Shadur, Israeli

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A documentary thriller describing the last days of the Israeli community in Tehran, on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The director, whose family was in Tehran at the time, uses rare archive materials to illustrate how thousands of Israelis, who enjoyed unusual affinity with the Shah’s regime, wake up one morning to find their paradise vanished.

 

“Border Café” dir. by Kambuzia Partovi, Iranian 

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“Border Café” depicts an independent-minded widow who bucks tradition to run her dead husband’s truck stop café.

 

“Cairo 678” or “678” dir. by Mohamed Diab, Egyptian

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In the bustling streets of Cairo, unfolds the poignant story of three women and their search for justice from the daily plight of sexual harassment in Egypt.  

  

“The Dish” or “Head Wind” dir. by Mohammad Rasoulof, Iranian

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A wry and powerful documentary from Mohammad Rasoulof, one of Iran’s most skilled documentarians exploring the powerful relationship between the satellite TV , which is illegal in Iran, and the nation’’s secret obsession with them. 

 

“The Fish Fall in Love” dir. by Ali Rafie, Iranian

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After 22 years, Aziz decides to return to his hometown, to sell some family possessions, including the house where he was born. But for his astonishment, the place is now a small restaurant. 

 

“For my Father” dir. by Dror Zahavi, Israeli

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A suicide bomber becomes dependent on the kindness of strangers when his explosives won’t detonate, giving him time to meet some of the people he’s targeting.   

 

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” dir. by Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, Israeli

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After a lukewarm marriage of over twenty years, a woman appeals to her husband’s compassion to obtain the desirable divorce document in front of a court, which proves to be more challenging than she would expect.  Highly Recommended. 

 

“Is That You?” dir. by Dani Menkin, Israeli

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The story of Ronnie, a 60 year old Israeli film projectionist, who has been fired from his job and is going now to the U.S. in a search for Rachel, the love of his youth. It’s a romantic, road trip journey to ‘The Road Not Taken’ in life. 

 

“More than Two Hours” dir. by Ali Asgari, Iranian

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This short film follows a man and woman who wander the city in the early hours of the morning looking for a hospital to cure the woman, but it is much harder than they thought. 

 

“Ten” dir. by Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian

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The 2002 film from Iranian master filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, focuses on ten conversations between a female driver in Tehran and the passengers in her car. Her exchanges with her young son, a jilted bride, a prostitute, a woman on her way to prayer and others, shed light on the lives and emotions of these women whose voices are seldom heard.  

 

FilmStruck:

 

“5 Broken Cameras” dir. by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, Palestinian/Israeli

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Embedded in the bullet-ridden remains of digital technology is the story of Emad Burnat, a farmer from the Palestinian village of Bil’in, which famously chose nonviolent resistance when the Israeli army encroached upon its land to make room for Jewish colonists. Emad buys his first camera in 2005 to document the birth of his fourth son, Gibreel. Over the course of the film, he becomes the peaceful archivist of an escalating struggle as olive trees are bulldozed, lives are lost, and a wall is built to segregate burgeoning Israeli settlements. 

 

“A Separation” dir. by Asghar Farhadi, Iranian

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A married couple are faced with a difficult decision – to improve the life of their child by moving to another country or to stay in Iran and look after a deteriorating parent who has Alzheimer’s disease.  

 

Ajami” dir. by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Israeli

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Ajami is an area of Tel Aviv in Israel where Arabs, Palestinians, Jews and Christians live together in a tense atmosphere. Omar, an Israeli Arab, struggles to save his family from a gang of extortionists. He also courts a beautiful Christian girl: Hadir. Malek, an illegal Palestinian worker, tries to collect enough money to pay for his mother’s operation. Dando, an Israeli cop, does his utmost to find his missing brother who may have been killed by Palestinians.  

 

“Bethlehem” dir. by Yuval Adler, Israeli

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Tells the story of the complex relationship between an Israeli Secret Service officer and his teenage Palestinian informant. Shuttling back and forth between conflicting points of view, the film is a raw portrayal of characters torn apart by competing loyalties and impossible moral dilemmas, giving an unparalleled glimpse into the dark and fascinating world of human intelligence. 

 

“Close-Up” dir. by Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian

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This fiction-documentary hybrid uses a sensational real-life event—the arrest of a young man on charges that he fraudulently impersonated the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf—as the basis for a stunning, multi-layered investigation into movies, identity, artistic creation, and existence, in which the real people from the case play themselves. Highly Recommended. 

 

“Divine Intervention” dir. By Yadon Ilaheyya, Palestinian

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A collection of several vignettes of Palestinian life in Israel – in a neighborhood in Nazareth and at Al-Ram checkpoint in East Jerusalem. Separated by the checkpoint, Palestinian lovers from Jerusalem and Ramallah arrange clandestine meetings.

 

“Jaffa” dir. by Keren Yedaya, Palestinian

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In the city of Jaffa; a young girl plans to run away with her secret lover, when a tragedy forever changes the course of their lives.

 

“Paradise Now” dir. by Hany Abu-Assad, Palestinian

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Filmed from the perspective of two Palestinian men who are preparing to perform a suicide attack in Israel. This is the first film to deal with the subject of suicide bombers.  Highly Recommended.

 

“Persepolis” dir. by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, French/Iranian

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In 1970s Iran, MarjaneMarjiStatrapi watches events through her young eyes and her idealistic family of a long dream being fulfilled of the hated Shah’s defeat in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However as Marji grows up, she witnesses first hand how the new Iran, now ruled by Islamic fundamentalists, has become a repressive tyranny on its own.  Highly Recommended.

 

“Salt of this Sea” dir. by Annemarie Jacir, Palestinian

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Born in Brooklyn to Palestinian refugee parents, Soraya decides to journey to the country of her ancestry when she discovers that her grandfather’s savings have been frozen in a Jaffa bank account since his 1948 exile. She soon finds, however, that her simple plan is a complicated undertaking — and one that takes her farther from her comfort zone than she’d imagined in this romantic drama. 

 

“Taste of Cherry” dir. by Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian

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An Iranian man drives his truck in search of someone who will quietly bury him under a cherry tree after he commits suicide. Highly Recommended. 

 

“Waltz with Basir” dir. by Ari Folman, Israeli

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An Israeli film director interviews fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to reconstruct his own memories of his term of service in that conflict through animation.  Highly Recommended.

 

“Wedding in Galilee” dir. by Michel Khleifi, Palestinian 

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A Palestinian seeks Israeli permission to waive curfew to give his son a fine wedding. The military governor’s condition is that he and his officers attend. The groom berates his father for agreeing. Women ritually prepare the bride; men prepare the groom. Guests gather. The Arab youths plot violence. One Israeli officer swoons in the heat and Arab women take her into the cool house. A thoroughbred gets loose and runs to a mined field; soldiers and Arabs must cooperate to rescue it. As darkness falls, tensions between army and villagers rise, and the groom’s wedding-night anger and impotence threaten family dignity and honor. Can cool heads prevail? 

 

“When I Saw You” dir. by Annemarie Jacir, Palestinian

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Jordan, 1967: displaced to a refugee camp after the occupation of their West Bank village, an eleven-year old boy and his mother enact the emancipating dream that every refugee has imagined countless times, in Annemarie Jacir’s passionate and moving follow-up to her prize-winning debut Salt of This Sea. 

 

“Where is the Friend’s Home?” dir. by Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian

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An 8 year old boy must return his friend’s notebook he took by mistake, lest his friend be punished by expulsion from school.

 

Netflix Streaming:

 

“A Borrowed Identity” dir. by Eran Riklis, Israeli

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A Palestinian-Israeli boy named Eyad is sent to a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, where he struggles with issues of language, culture, and identity.  

 

“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” dir. by Ana Lily Amirpour, American/Persian

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This fantasy/horror film debut by Amirpour is set in the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. Highly Recommended. 

 

“About Elly” dir. by Asghar Farhadi, Iranian

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The mysterious disappearance of a kindergarten teacher during a picnic in the north of Iran is followed by a series of misadventures for her fellow travelers. Highly Recommended. 

 

“Baba Joon” dir. by Yuval Delshad, Israeli

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The son of a family of Iranian farmers in Israel rebels against his strong-willed father. 

 

“Big Bad Wolves” dir. by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, Israeli

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Often deemed the first Israeli horror film, “Big Bad Wolves” follows a series of brutal murders puts the lives of three men on a collision course: The father of the latest victim now out for revenge, a vigilante police detective operating outside the boundaries of law, and the main suspect in the killings – a religious studies teacher arrested and released due to a police blunder. 

 

“East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” dir. by Henrique Cymerman and Erez Miller, Israeli

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In Palestinian East Jerusalem, Singer-Songwriter David Broza records a new album with American, Palestinian and Israeli musicians in defiance of the Middle East’s dark realities. 

 

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi” or “Taxi Tehran” dir. by Jafar Panahi, Iranian

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Jafar Panahi is banned from making movies by the Iranian government, he poses as a taxi driver and makes a movie about social challenges in Iran.  

 

“Omar” dir. by Hany Abu-Assad, Palestinian 

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A young Palestinian freedom fighter agrees to work as an informant after he’s tricked into an admission of guilt by association in the wake of an Israeli soldier’s killing. Highly Recommended.

 

“Oriented” dir. by Jake Witzenfeld, Israeli/English

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A feature documentary that follows the lives of three gay Palestinian friends exploring their national and sexual identity in Tel-Aviv during the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2014.  

 

“The President” dir. by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgian

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A brutal dictator comes face to face with the injustices committed by his regime when his country is taken over by revolutionists.  

 

“Rattle the Cage” dir. by Majid Al Ansari, United Arab Emirati/Jordanian

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A prisoner waiting to make bail realizes that being incarcerated is the least of his problems as he is forced to play a madman’s game to save his family’s lives. 

 

“Return to Homs” dir. by Talal Derki, Syrian 

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A look behind the barricades of the besieged city of Homs, where for nineteen-year-old Basset and his ragtag group of comrades, the audacious hope of revolution is crumbling like the buildings around them.
 

“Sand Storm” dir. By Elite Zexer, Israeli

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When a Bedouin patriarch takes a second bride, his first wife chafes against her changing status while her daughter chases her own dreams of autonomy.   

 

“The Square” dir. by Jehane Noujaim, Egyptian/American

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A group of Egyptian revolutionaries battle leaders and regimes, risking their lives to build a new society of conscience. Highly Recommended.

 

Theeb” dir. by Naji Abu Nowar, Jordanian/United Arab Emirati/Qatari

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In the Ottoman province of Hijaz during World War I, a young Bedouin boy experiences a greatly hastened coming-of-age as he embarks on a perilous desert journey to guide a British officer to his secret destination. 

 

“Very Big Shot” dir. by Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, Qatari/Lebanese 

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Intending to smuggle drugs across the borders, a small-time Lebanese drug-dealer slyly manipulates public opinion with the help of an underrated filmmaker. 

 

“The White Helmets” dir. by Orlando von Einsiedel, UK/Syrian

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As daily airstrikes pound civilian targets in Syria, a group of indomitable first responders risk their lives to rescue victims from the rubble. Highly Recommended.

 

“Winter Sleep” dir. by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkish

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Aydin, a former actor, runs a small hotel in central Anatolia with his young wife Nihal with whom he has a stormy relationship and his sister Necla who is suffering from her recent divorce. In winter as the snow begins to fall, the hotel turns into a shelter but also an inescapable place that fuels their animosities…

 

Netflix DVD:

 

“A Separation” dir. by Asghar Farhadi, Iranian

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Also available on FilmStruck. See above. 

 

“The Deserted Station” dir. by Alireza Raisian, Iranian

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On a pilgrimage to Mashad from Tehran, a couple’s transportation breaks down, far from any major town. The husband, a photographer, seeks help at a nearby village and encounters a teacher who offers to help. Whilst the husband and teacher go off to find a spare part, the wife, who used to be a teacher, takes over the teaching lessons in the village. It is clear that the children live there, in this strange deserted place, without any men, save the teacher and an old signal guard. As the day draws on, the children help to bring a new hope and life into the wife’s heart. Highly Recommended. 

 

“Manuscripts Don’t Burn” dir. by Mohammad Rasoulof, Iranian

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Khosrow and Morteza set out on a mission to kill someone. The assassination ought to be arranged as a suicide. At the last minute however, they are obliged to change their initial plans. 

 

“Men at Work” dir. by Mani Haghighi, Iranian

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A political allegory on four middle-class guys who pile into their car for a ski weekend. They make a brief stop to see a massive rock protruding from a cliff. The friends joke about how easy it would be to push the rock off the cliff, but find the task to be much more difficult than they expected. What begins as a silly idea becomes a serious mission as the men struggle to dislodge the rock by any means necessary in this existential Iranian comedy. 

 

“Offside” dir. By Jafar Panahi, Iranian

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Struggle of Women in a country that excludes them from entering the stadiums.  

 

“The Stoning of Soraya M.” dir. by Cyrus Nowrasteh, Persian/American

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An distressed, Iranian woman desperately asks for a meeting with a journalist to disclose the cruel and inhumane punishment of her innocent niece. 

 

“This is Not a Film” dir. by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi, Iranian

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It’s been months since Jafar Panahi, stuck in jail, has been awaiting a verdict by the appeals court. By depicting a day in his life, Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb try to portray the deprivations looming in contemporary Iranian cinema. Highly Recommended.

 

“Wadjda” dir. by Haifaa al-Mansour, Saudi Arabian 

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An enterprising Saudi girl signs on for her school’s Koran recitation competition as a way to raise the remaining funds she needs in order to buy the green bicycle that has captured her interest. Highly Recommended.

 

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Author: Savannah Oakes

A sarcastic, fairness-loving middle child, Savannah grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She currently lives in the city and attends Columbia College in Chicago where she studies film. She is a writer/director/editor who is passionate about sharing female stories. Her work tends to include topics like female sexuality, mental illness and LGBTQ issues. She is an avid Shakespeare lover and an even bigger lover of Improvised Shakespeare. The Art Institute is her second home so if she’s not there catch her trancing through cemeteries, lighting her Tina Fey and Amy Poehler vigil candles or being everybody’s surrogate mother.

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