LOS ANGELES, Nov 8, (RTRS): With last year’s winner, Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman,” hailing from Iran, Oscar handicappers should be sure to give the Middle Eastern titles close scrutiny this time around. Among the region’s 11 submissions are several films likely to be highly competitive in the foreign-language category. These include the 2017 Venice prize winners “Foxtrot,” from Israel, helmed by Samuel Maoz (“Lebanon”) and “The Insult,” from Lebanon, directed by Ziad Doueiri, whose first feature “West Beirut” was also a Lebanese submission.
The lineup also includes a rare title from Syria, the documentary “Little Gandhi” about Syrian peace activist Ghiyath Matar. Another title with an unusual pedigree is Afghanistan’s “A Letter to the President,” a rough-edged feminist drama about a female Kabul police chief, helmed by Roya Sadat, the country’s first distaff director to emerge in the post-Taleban era.
Could this finally be Israel’s year? The country has submitted films for the foreign-language Oscar since 1964, receiving 10 nominations, but has never brought home the little golden man. The daring, intelligently devised “Foxtrot” represents a strong candidate. Both specific and universal — and not without humor — it boldly tackles fate, coincidence, guilt and grieving, the Holocaust and the Israeli Defense Forces, with a father-son story told in three sequences.Variety reviewer Jay Weissberg wrote, “Brilliantly constructed with a visual audacity that serves the subject rather than the other way around, this is award-winning filmmaking on a fearless level.”
“The Insult” is also both universal and specific: a trivial contretemps between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian construction worker escalates into a tense, highly publicized trial that ends up further dividing Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim populations. As the disputants take their struggle for dignity and justice into the courtroom, their respective attorneys rake through traumatic incidents from their clients’ past and unleash every trick in their repertoire. Helmer Doueiri deftly and even-handedly delves into his country’s contentious past while subtly commenting on positive and negative aspects of male pride.
While “Foxtrot” and “The Insult” represent the region’s best bets for an Oscar nomination, there are several dark horse titles that could nab a spot on the shortlist of nine. Chief among them: “Wajib” from Palestine, helmed by Annemarie Jacir, whose previous films “Salt of This Sea” and “When I Saw You” were also Palestinian submissions. Her latest is a wry dramedy that follows a divorced father and his visiting architect son as they hand-deliver wedding invitations in Nazareth. With the charismatic, richly nuanced playing of real-life father and son Mohammed and Saleh Bakri as the leads, Jacir’s wise screenplay subtly brings out differences in generational attitudes and contradictions in outlook between those who leave the Territory and those who remain.
Iraq’s “Reseba — The Dark Wind” addresses another torn-from-the-headlines subject: helmer Hussein Hassan sensitively tells the story of a kidnapped Kurdish Yazidi woman sold into slavery by ISIS. Made in collaboration with the Yazidi community and shot in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, the film treats explosive subject matter in a quietly authentic, non-exploitive fashion.
This year, the prospects of the Maghreb countries are not so strong. The Egyptian submission “Sheikh Jackson” is a low-key character study about a troubled young cleric’s obsession with pop singer Michael Jackson.
Morocco, meanwhile, fields “Razzia,” a perhaps overly kaleidoscopic social drama from director Nabil Ayouch, whose previous efforts “Mektoub,” “Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets,” and “Horses” were also Moroccan submissions. Although Tunisia’s “The Last of Us,” directed by Ala Eddine Slim can boast its 2016 Venice fest Lion of the Future kudo, the dialogue-free treatment of migration from Africa is far more experimental in execution than standard Academy fare.And what has Iran mustered to follow up on Farhadi’s win?
LOS ANGELES: Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour’s female empowerment feature “Miss Camel” is among four projects selected to vie for the IWC Filmmaker Award worth $100,000 during the upcoming Dubai International Film Festival.
A jury headed by Cate Blanchett will select the winner.
Al Mansour made waves in 2013 with “Wadjda,” about a 10-year-old Saudi girl who wants to ride a bicycle even though it is forbidden for her in her country.
She more recently directed English-language biopic “Mary Shelley” starring Elle Fanning which world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and was recently picked up for US distribution by IFC Films.
The long-gestating “Miss Camel” project is about a Saudi teen named Hayla “who will do anything to escape her arranged marriage and fulfil her goal of attending art school outside of Saudi Arabia,” according to its synopsis.
“While scheming to make her way to the in-person interviews for the art college in a neighbouring Gulf state, Hayla makes a startling discovery at her cousin’s wedding — she can talk to animals.” Thus begins the teen’s rapport with a beautiful camel named Melwah with which she travels across the kingdom to compete in the Miss Camel beauty pageant in Doha, challenging the deep-rooted restrictions of her culture.
The other projects shortlisted for the sixth IWC Filmmmaker Award are:
n Emirati writer/director and producer Nayla Al Khaja’s feature film debut “Animal” set in an upper middle class Dubai household “ruled by an unstable and cruel patriarch,” according to its synopsis. The film follows the lives of four family members and two domestic helpers and “the audience quickly grasps the tempestuous mood swings the other members of the home are forced to endure, and the extreme anxiety this can create.” “To escape their harsh reality, the two siblings shape a parallel world fuelled by creativity, pranks and imagination.”
n Bahraini director Rashed Buali’s sophomore feature “Kombars,” a comedy about a widower in his 40s who, shortly after inheriting a woman’s lingerie shop, finds out that he has one month to find a new wife or he will lose his spot on the list of government housing beneficiaries.
n Omani filmmaker Muzna Almusafer’s feature film debut “The Crown of Olives,” a relationship drama “inspired by the sleepy city of Muscat.”
The award will be presented to the winning filmmaker during a gala event on Dec 7 at the One&Only Royal Mirage hotel in Dubai.
DIFF’s Artistic Director Masoud Amralla Al Ali noted in a statement that the IWC Filmmaker Award allows “both promising and established filmmakers” from the region to “take their vision from script to screen.”
The 14th edition of DIFF will run Dec 6-13.