Rob Edelman: Middle-Eastern Cinema

Jan 15, 2018

Films that come out of the Middle East do not just center on Arab-Israeli relations and conflicts or the hows and whys of individuals who become terrorists. They tell a range of stories and deal with a range of issues. Plus, they are made by filmmakers who are transcending borders and earning some well-deserved international acclaim.

Take for example Haifaa Al-Mansour, who is the first-ever female Saudi Arabian filmmaker. Back in 2012, Al-Mansour scripted and directed WADJDA, the pointed, entertaining tale of a determined ten-year-old girl who is intent on owning and riding her own bicycle. Only problem is, girls simply are not supposed to be so bold as to want to ride a bike in Saudi Arabia. In Al-Mansour’s follow-up, she transcends her home country and her part of the world in telling a story of female empowerment. She directed and co-scripted MARY SHELLEY, a combination romantic drama-biopic which raised eyebrows when it was screened in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. One might assume that, given its characters and setting, the maker of MARY SHELLEY would be British. But one of life’s lessons is: Never assume!

In MARY SHELLEY, Al-Mansour casts a name-actress-- Georgia-born Elle Fanning-- in the title role. Fanning is joined by a British cast, and the focus is on the love affair between Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and the poet Percy Shelley, the manner in which she came to write Frankenstein, and her determination to embrace her independence in a male-dominated culture. 

MARY SHELLEY was not the lone film screened in Toronto with Middle Eastern roots. One that I did manage to see was BLACK KITE, which is similar to WADJDA as a pointed tale of Middle Eastern repression. BLACK KITE, which hails from Afghanistan and is directed and scripted by Tarique Qayumi, is the story of a young boy who is fascinated by kite-flying, an obsession that remains with him as he grows to manhood. In his part of the world, and particularly when the Taliban come to power, a preoccupation with something as innocent as kite-flying is akin to a high crime, punishable by death. At the opening of the film, he is about to be executed for this so-called “crime”-- and it is well-worth observing that the BLACK KITE scenario is based on a true story.

Another was SHEIKH JACKSON, an Egyptian film directed and co-scripted by Amr Salama, which directly deals with the impact of Western culture on Eastern religion. The central character is a super-religious Muslim who nonetheless is drawn to the music of Michael Jackson. Since childhood, he has been intrigued by the King of Pop. So how does he respond when Michael Jackson suddenly dies? And also, what specifically is the impact of Michael Jackson on his life? Is his obsession with pop music somehow a sin? Is Michael Jackson the creator of “music of the devil?” What is so wrong about liking it, and enjoying it in the here and now?

BLACK KITE and SHEIKH JACKSON are but two examples of the range of films emerging from the Middle East. There are others and, surely, they will not be the last... 

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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