Oscar: Best International Feature Film – Middle East

After the five parts with the films from different regions of the world (East Asia, South Asia, Past-Soviet Block, Scandinavian and Baltic countries and Central Europe), we’re finally coming to the region of my home country – Israel, the Middle East.

Iran

“Sun Children” (“خورشید”)

Directed by Majid Majidi

Iranians have submitted the newest film by one of the most esteemed country’s film directors – Majid Majidi (“Children of Heaven”). Majidi returns to the subject that put him and Iranian cinema on the map during the 90’s – the children from the slums. Ali, 12, and his three friends work hard in a garage to survive and committing petty crimes to make fast money. In a turn of events that seems miraculous, Ali is entrusted by the mafia boss to find hidden treasure underground the charitable school for the poor kids. 

“Sun Children” took part at the last Venice Film Festival and the young actor who played Ali, Roohollah Zamani, won the Young Actor award.

Like his other films, Majidi uses both the professional actors and children he has taken from the street, thus giving his characters the authenticity needed for the story. “Sun Children” succeeds in combining a teen adventure film (after all, we deal with treasure search) and drama about the plight of the poor street children, their ill-employment, and the system that neglects them. “Sun Children”  gives hope to a better world through a school principal’s characters and one of the teachers who attaches to Ali. Like always, Majidi’s work is touching.

Chances for Oscar: High.

Twenty-two years ago, Majid Majidi was already nominated for Oscar for “Children of Heaven”. However, his films were submitted three more times without success. This year, a drama with children and the short-list expansion should bring him back into the spotlight. 

Was the choice right?: Yes.

As usual Iranian cinema is doing very well at the major film festivals worldwide. Including the Golden Bear Winner – “There is no Evil” is banned in Iran, the film’s director, Muhammad Rasuloff (“A Man of Integrity”), was sent to jail for making it and was not even considered among the multiple options for the Iranian representation. Told in four separates stories, each of them dealing with capital punishment in Iran, Rasoulof directs unexceptional and impressive cinematic work. In this anthology, he managed to show four unique worlds, each story and character has its own style, which completes them and it’s magnificent. Nevertheless, the film left me unease because I felt it was not complicated enough, leading to easy conclusions. 

Among the films that were on the Iranian shortlist can be “Wasteland”. Winner of Orizotti competition at Venice Film Festival about many families, whose job are in danger, when the brick manufacture factory may go bankrupt. Inspired by the works of Béla Tarr, the film can’t offer anything besides great  b/w cinematography. It lacks any deep characters, and I was left indifferent to destiny. Its plot is really thin, and the characters’ actions do not have real consequences on others. It feels much more like some kind of study to show, putting a “V” by ethnicities.

Israel

“Asia” (“אסיה”)

Directed by Ruthy Pribar

My lovely home country’s submission is “Asia” by the name of its main character.  Asia (Alona Yiv)  is the single mother of 17-year-old Vika (Shira Haas), a girl with muscular dystrophy. Asia is trying to find time between her work at the hospital as a nurse and Vika’s treatment as she slowly loses her strength and independence. 

“Asia” won three awards at the prestigious Tribeca Festival for Shira Haas, photographer Daniel Horowitz and director-screenwriter  Ruthy Pribar also received the Nora Efron Award.

Alona Yiv and Shira Haas (“Unorthodox”)  are astonishing, and there is terrific chemistry between them as mother and daughter touching and moving the audience in their difficult moments. The casting of the two seems like a real catch because there is an extra-ordinary resemblance between them, but there’s another side of the coin.

Alona Yiv is Russian-born, and Shira, well, she’s not. She hardly says a few sentences in Russian with a thick Israeli accent, while Asia speaks mainly in Russian (as it should be). I doubt it will affect Oscar voters or the audience not familiar with Russian, but for me, it was an issue, and the moment the film starts to creak. Haas’s character, Vika, lived in Israel since the age of three, but her upbringing was supposed to result in much better conversational skills than those shown by her in the film. In addition, the characters themselves, mostly the teenage girl, are quite generic.

Chances for Oscar: Have I already told you that Shira Haas is starting in the film? Well, with her, Israeli chances become reasonable. 

Was the choice right?: No and no!

How unfortunate that the Israeli Academy chose to ignore Nir Bergman’s new film (“Broken Wings”, “The Inner Grammar”) – “Here We Are” and send “Asia” instead. It’s one of the best films I have seen this year. Bergman manages with exceptional professionalism to produce a wonderfully balanced comedic drama with Shai Avivi and Noam Imber’s excellent acting performances. Aharon (Shai Avivi) has devoted his life to raising his son Uri (Noam Imber). They live together in a gentle routine, away from the real world. But Uri is autistic, and now as a young adult, it might be time for him to live in a specialized home. While on their way to the institution, Aharon decides to run away with his son and hits the road

Morocco

( “القديس المجهول”)  “The Unknown Saint”

Directed by  Alaa Eddine Aljem

Finally, there’s a real comedy among the contenders, not simply a comedy, but a crime comedy. Moments before his capture by police, a thief digs a grave to hide a bag of money. Released from prison years later, he returns to retrieve the bag, only to find a shrine to an Unknown Saint build directly over his loot and a brand new village constructed all around it.

A fun and entertaining film manage to squeeze everything out of the situation in which it placed the character. The movie’s absurdity and satire are great, but it is quite negligible and forgotten soon after the viewing.

Chances for Oscar: Low

Was the choice right: Not sure.

Moroccan could have submitted “Mica” by Ismaël Ferroukhi about Mica, a poor child who gets a job far from his home at the prestigious tennis club. Sophia, a former famous tennis player and now a coach, eventually notice Mica and take him under her wing. “Mica” maybe be is not the best of sports films, and it’s not the best of children’s films, but it has heart and soul. It’s a small injection of pure kindness and optimism we so lack and eager for lately. “Mica” is not a fairytale, Ismaël Ferroukhi inputs realistic notes both in the screenplay and directing where it’s needed. Zakaria Inan is the young star of “Mica”  holding on his back the whole film.

Pakistan

“Circus of Life” (“Zindagi Tamasha”)”

Directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat

“Circus of Life” was in the middle of controversy when the film and the director were accused of blasphemy. The release of the film was suspended after the religious uproar. Muhammad Rahat Khawaja is a respected elderly man famous for his Muslim hymns. He is recorded at the wedding of a friend’s son dancing to the sounds of a seductive female song from a classic Pakistani musical (the name of the film refers to the song itself – “My life has become a spectacle”). The video becomes viral, and his life turns into hell. Other than his bedridden wife, no one else in the world understands Rahat and turns their backs on him. 

A film that starts comically slowly grows increasingly gloomy. The gradual immersion into the alienation that Rahat receives is excellent. The carefully chosen song that accompanies the film gives it an extra dimension. Arif Hassan excels as a character who suddenly has to deal with a traditional machoistic society that has previously adored him.

Chances for Oscar: Low.

The film does not have enough buzz and is likely to be lost among dozens of films participating this year in the short Oscar season.

Saudia Arabia

  (“سيدة البحر”) “Scales”

Directed by  Shahad Ameen

The Saudi submissions have repeatedly been irritating with their hypocrisy showing openness and free speech when actually it is a very closed country on the verge of dictatorship with human rights violations. Seven years ago, they submitted a film to Oscars for the first time (“Wadjda”) when public screenings in Saudia Arabia were still banned (they managed to overcome the demand for weekly screenings in the country thanks to the film screenings at various Saudi consulate). This year, the country with the violation of women’s rights among the highest in the world, again, submits a film, you guessed it, about women’s rights, made by a female director…

“Scales” is a fable about a village on a remote island where the only food source is mermaid flesh. The only way to keep the food supply going is to sacrifice baby girls to the sea. After being saved by her father as an infant from being given to the mermaids, 13-year-old Hayat faces the prospect of being sacrificed again.

The original title should be translated as “Lady of the Sea”.

“Scales” is a terrifying and original legend that deals with women’s rights and the environmental crisis. It features beautiful and interesting imageries that amplify it. The b/w cinematography of the dead island and the sea is magnificent. On the other hand, the plot itself lacks “meat” even though the idea is excellent. Also, the characters are not deep enough, and the messages are superficial.

Chances for Oscar: None, too artistic and not high-profile enough.

Tunisia

“The Man Who Sold His Skin”

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania

Two years ago, Tunisia submitted “A Beauty and the Dogs” by Kaouther Ben Hania, depicting a night in the life of a girl who tries to file a complaint with the police after surviving gang-rape. It had one of the strongest female characters I’ve seen in recent years and was shot in a few single long shots. It was one of my top 5 films I saw in 2018, but unfortunately, the Academy has snubbed it. “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is her newest film. 

Sam Ali and Abeer are a Syrian couple who plan to announce their engagement shortly before the Civil War breaks. It changes their plans, Sam Ali has to flee to Lebanon, and Abeer’s family marries her with a Syrian diplomat with a European passport. To rejoin with the love of his life, Sam Ali accepts to have his back tattooed by one of the most sulfurous contemporary artists, becoming that way a precious work of art.

After “Beauty and the Dogs”  and following it, her debut film “Le Challat de Tunis”, my expectations for “The Man Who Sold His Skin” were sky-high,  Ben Hania lives them up delivering another incredible film.

This time she makes a bright allegory about hypocritical West European society, which looks like they’re defending refugees, but after all, use them for their interests. Ben Hania has complete control over all the cinematic elements with bright mise-en-scene and exceptional use of art design and colors.  What an outstanding performance by Yahya Mahayni!

Chances for Oscar: High.

However, I thought so too two years ago with “The Beauty and the Dogs” and the issue of refugees is no longer as hot as it was three or four years ago, so there is a chance that Kaouther Ben Hania, again, unfortunately, will find herself off the shortlist.

Turkey

“Miracle in Cell No. 7” (“7. Koğuştaki Mucize”)”

Directed by Mehmet Ada Öztekin

Available at Netflix.

The most-watched film in Turkey in 2019. A real Turkish melodrama. Separated from his daughter, Memo, a father with an intellectual disability is jailed for a commander’s child’s death. With the help of her school teacher and few others, the little daughter is harnessed to prove his innocence and save him from the death penalty.

If you have not watched the film or have not yet understood by reading the synopsis, this is a real tear-jerker, one that squeezes all the juice down to the last drop. “Miracle in Cell No. 7″ is very effective in what it does; A kind-hearted character who is done wronged, an insanely cute little girl who only wish to see her father again, criminals who change their ways and are filled with family values ​​following an encounter with Memo and his daughter, violin music score that emphasizes drama at any given opportunity and more. And I can easily imagine why people are moved by”Miracle in Cell No. 7”, but for me, it was mostly one big manipulation, harmful like eating a pound of sugar. Lacking credibility right from the start, many questions start to rise. Why would anyone even marry his daughter to penniless and intellectually disabled Memo, the one-dimensional character of the military man who looks like a cartoonish version to an average villain who just wants to destroy everything and, of course, the most absurd ending.

Chances for Oscar: Weak, unless the senior academy voters are emotional than I am.

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