From Tunisia and Lebanon to Morocco and Saudi Arabia, Arab talents are showing their art and their culture to the world with more self-assurance than ever before. From Cannes, we get you acquainted with five promising actors and directors who are already shining.
A versatile actor with a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’
From Tunisia with love. From Tunisia with power. From Tunisia, just before the revolution. This young French-Tunisian actor is probably the revelation of the category Un Certain Regard. In Harka, Lotfy Nathan’s debut feature screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a powerful portrait about a lost young man who struggles to provide for his family after his father dies. Ali is left in charge of his two younger sisters, and “is a young Tunisian man in his 20s, living in Sidi Bouzid, right in the middle of Tunisia. He is a gasoline tailer. It was one of the most intense roles of my life,” says Adam Bessa, who dedicated all his energy into trying to understand and convey all the dimensions of a complex character that represents a whole generation. “It’s one of the biggest challenges I had to face in my career so far,” says the versatile actor, who can show vulnerability one moment and anger a split second later, with both grace and authenticity.
The actor spent two weeks in Sidi Bouzid ,the birthplace of the street vendor Mohamed Boazizi, whose self-immolation in 2010 started a revolution. The actor wanted to know more about locals and the people who smuggle gas. He wanted to know everything about the accent, the way of talking, the way of behaving. “That was very important for me. During the shooting, with the director, we wanted to stay focused in character and remain in that mood most of the time.” This is probably why Bessa was able to deliver such a haunting performance. “It’s a huge responsibility to show our culture to the world. I am very positive about the fact we have many great films and stories to come. To be part of that makes me very proud and I am really excited about it.”
The free spirit with the power of storytelling
She knows how to tackle taboo issues in Morocco and the Arab world, and all her work is marked by the individual freedom that her birth country seeks. Director Maryam Touzani tells stories about minorities, and amplifies their voices through topics that shatter her country’s social, political, and religious conventions. After working on a documentary about prostitution and a short film about the exploitation of children as domestic workers, she debuted with Adam, her first feature selected at Cannes in 2019. The theme revolved around single mothers and their societal issues. This year, Touzani makes it again in Un Certain Regard with Blue Caftan, where she turns her gaze on the concealed homosexuality of a married man in Morocco. The story is about Mina and Halim (Lubna Azabal ans Saleh Bakri), a happy married couple in appearance who run a traditional caftan store in Sale, one of Morocco’s oldest medinas. When Mina gets sick, the couple decide to hire Youssef, a talented apprentice whom Halim takes under his wing. With her camera, Maryam Touzani knows how to show the world the sad reality of a nation that she loves over all else.
A natural born actor
In Cannes we trust, but this actor prefers to forget about all that, and instead, concentrates on what’s most important to him. “For me, Cannes and festivals are the worst part of an actor’s life,” says the jury member Djanis Bouzyani, a free spirit who seems to have been chosen by cinema, instead of the other way round. “I have never planned to be an actor. I love doing my job but for me it’s a question of choice. I’d rather meet a director than read his script. It’s a question of humanity.” Born and raised in Colombes, the suburbs of Paris, the actor never forgot where he came from. “My parents are Moroccan, they speak Moroccan at home. I know where my roots are, and I am happy to be able to do movies from Maghreb.” Cannes remembers his first steps in cinema with the actress and director Hafsia Herzi in Tu Mérites un Amour, a movie that was selected in La Semaine de la Critique in 2019. “It’s so easy to work with her, she’s a natural, she’s a real talent,” says Bouzyani, who is already preparing a new movie with her.
Serving humans and their stories from a chic red carpet
Born in Jeddah, internationally acclaimed storyteller, actor, director, writer and performing artist Fatima AlBanawi describes herself as a “multi-hyphenate creative.” And she really is. After scoring a Master’s in Theological Studies from Harvard University and research on Women’s Representation and Arab Identity in both film and literature, she created The Other Story Project in 2015, collecting almost 5,000 real-life stories from strangers. This inspired her to shoot a short film called A Blink of an Eye, and to write her first book. 2016 was a great year for the multitalented artist, when she made an appearance at the 66th Berlinale with her film Barakah Meets Barakah. Thanks to the role, she managed to clear a path for Saudi Arabian cinema. Time magazine selected AlBanawi as a Next Generation Leader in its 2018 issue. This year in Cannes, the artist arrived at the red carpet wearing a Rami Kadi dress. “I am here to support and watch directors work and I hope I can arrive soon in Cannes with my own projects, to show the world my work”.
The telluric director with a pure heart
His camera is real and his photography is poetic. His work is both soulful and meaningful. He knows how to bring humanity in violence, and examines human minds by analyzing their hearts. Born in Beirut, Ali Cherri is a visual artist and filmmaker living in Paris. With The Dam, a powerful feature selected in La Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, the director puts his camera on Maher, from Sudan, near the Merowe Dam. Maher works in a traditional brickyard fed by the waters of the Nile. Every evening, he secretly wanders off into the desert to build a mysterious construction made of mud. While the Sudanese people rise to claim their freedom, his creation slowly starts to take a life of its own.
The director shot the movie during the Sudan revolution. “We’ve been facing a lot since the movie started, we faced two revolutions, one natural catastrophe, one pandemic, but also a wedding and a baby coming for Maher!” says the director before the screening, about a film that is part of a larger project devoted to what he calls the geographies of violence, or the landscapes of violence. It consists of identifying how violent crisis are inscribed in particular environments; in scrutinizing them carefully enough to make tangible how political, social and geopolitical events are embedded in these environments, even if not necessarily explicit. The trilogy is composed of films that can stand on their own. The short films: The Disquiet shot in Lebanon, The Digger shot in the United Arab Emirates and The Dam shot in Sudan. “I have always tried to look at landscapes and bodies, earth, and flesh, in the same way”. Of course, he has.