Movies About the Middle East

In an earlier article, we provided a list of books that one could read to become informed about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, but there is another medium to consider as well: film.

The options range from general release fiction, to historical fiction, to shorts, to documentary. You will find there is a lot more to see than the classically romantic Lawrence of Arabia, which is probably what first comes to mind. Of course, since many of the films are dramas, they may be entertaining, but may not fully or accurately reflect the realities of Middle East.

General Release/Popular Cinema/Foreign-Language Films:

The following films from the past decade will be mentioned in reverse order of date of release, i.e., from most recent to earlier releases. Many of the general release/popular films are widely available. (Note: This should not be considered an exhaustive list.)

Wadjda (2013)

A film by Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour, the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. The film, in Arabic with English subtitles, tells the story of Wadjda, a 10-year-old girl living in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. "Although she lives in a conservative world, Wadjda is fun loving, entrepreneurial and always pushing the boundaries of what she can get away with."

Incendies (Scorched) (2010)

This 2010 French Canadian film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Oscars. Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's play, Scorched, the film follows the journey of a twin sister and brother who, after their mother's death, travel from Montreal to the Middle East to try to discover the secrets of their late mother's life. The majority of the action takes place in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Fuad, which, as anyone who knows anything about the Middle East will know, is a stand-in for Lebanon. The film is chiefly in French and Arabic, with English subtitles. Also see the Sony Classics page for Incendies, which includes a trailer.

Sex in the City 2 (2010)

We had to include this much fluffier 2010 option, in which the famous Manhattanites Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha take their schtick on the road to Abu Dhabi ... But, as Audra pointed out in her guest letter from the editor, Abu Dhabi wouldn't let them film in their city — the film was shot in New York and Morocco.

Son of Babylon (2009)

Set in 2003, this film by Iraqi-Dutch director Mohamed Al Daradji tells the story of 12-year-old Ahmed, who follows his grandmother on a journey across Iraq, as she tries to discover the fate of her missing son, Ahmed's father, who never returned from war in 1991. Al Daradji won two awards for this film at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival. In Arabic and Kurdish, with English subtitles.

Journey to Mecca (2009)

This IMAX film, narrated by Ben Kinsley, is set in 1325, and traces the journey of Ibn Battutah, one of the world's greatest travelers, from his home in Tangiers to Mecca to complete his hajj pilgrimage. Also see the film's page, which includes a trailer.

Laila's Birthday (2008)

A judge returns from abroad to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where, because the government has run out of money to pay his wages, he must earn a living by driving his brother-in-law's taxi. The story takes place on the day of his daughter's 7th birthday, and the New York Times describes the film as "a dark urban comedy that registers outrage in glancing jabs of absurdist observation." The film is in Arabic with English subtitles.

The Kingdom (2007)

This Hollywood release stars Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, and Jason Batman, and involves the story of a team of US FBI agents who travel to Saudi Arabia to investigate the bombing of an American compound. The film was not shot in Saudi Arabia, but in the state of Arizona, in Mexico, and in Abu Dhabi.

Persepolis (2007)

This is a French animated film that is based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, and tells the tale of an Iranian girl coming of age during the Islamic Revolution. This film won the Jury Prize Ex-aequo, 2007, at the Cannes Festival.

Rendition (2007)

This Hollywood release stars Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Peter Sarsgaard, with Alan Arkin and Meryl Streep. A CIA agent, played by Gyllenhaal, begins to question his work, when he is assigned to supervise the torture of a detainee at a secret detention centre outside of the United States. In his October 19, 2007 review in the Chicago Sun-Times, critic Roger Ebert wrote, "A film like 'Rendition' is valuable and rare. … 'It is a movie about the theory and practice of two things: torture and personal responsibility. And it is wise about what is right, and what is wrong.'"

Redacted__ (2007)

Brian De Palma is both writer and director of this fictional tale, loosely based on the 2006 Mahmudiyah killings and rape of a young teenage girl in Iraq by US soldiers. In the film, the US media reconstructs the story through a variety of media sources, including the soldiers' own video, local TV reporting, security cameras, helmet-cams, and more. The film won director De Palma the Silver Lion award for Best Director at the 2007 Venice Film Festival.

Captain Abu Raed (2007)

In this film by Jordanian director Amin Matalqa, a group of poor children mistake a lonely, aging janitor who works at Amman's international airport for an airline pilot. Happy to have company, he entertains the children with fictional stories of his adventures traveling the world, while encouraging them to have their own dreams and ambitions. The film is in Arabic with English subtitles. The film won numerous awards, including the Muhr Award for Best Actor at the 2007 Dubai International Film Festival and the Audience Award for World Cinema-Dramatic at the 2008 Sundance Festival.

Ahlaam (translated varyingly as "Utopia" or "Dreams") (2006)

This film, written and directed by Iraqi-Dutch director Mohamed Al Daradji, was filmed in Baghdad in 2004 — yes, in the middle of the war. The drama tells the story of the past and current lives of three Iraqi mental patients amidst the "Shock and Awe" campaign of the invasion of Iraq. The film runs in Arabic with English subtitles. The film won awards at the Brooklyn International Film Festival, the Carthage Film Festival, the Istanbul International Film Festival, and the Leeds International Film Festival. Mohamed Al-daradji was Variety's Middle East Filmmaker of the Year for 2010.

It's Winter (2006)

A moody drama by Iranian-British director Rafi Pitts, which focuses on three residents of Tehran, Iran - a husband who leaves his wife and daughter to work abroad, the wife he left behind, and the new man who moves into the neighborhood. The film is in Farsi, with English subtitles.

A New Day in Old Sana'a (2005)

This romantic drama was written and directed by a British- Yemeni playwright, Bader Ben Hirsi, and was shot in Sana'a, Yemen. The film runs in English and Arabic with English subtitles. It won the Best Arabic Film award in at the Cairo International Film Festival.

Syriana (2005)

A geopolitical thriller starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Jeffrey Wright, and involving oil, politics, business, and the CIA. Clooney won both the Oscar and Golden Globe awards for Best Supporting Actor.

Hidalgo (2004)

The tale of a man and his horse: A late 19th century Pony Express courier travels to the Middle East to compete in a 3,000-mile horserace across the desert.

The Syrian Bride (2004)

A comedy-drama by Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis, is about a Druze bride from a village along the Israeli-Syrian border, who is engaged to a television comedian that works in Damascus, Syria. The film won four awards at the 2004 Montreal World Film Festival.

Documentaries:

Following is a list of documentaries from, chiefly, the past decade. Not surprisingly, many documentaries involve the Israel-Palestine conflict or the war in Iraq, but other topics include women, war, sport, activism, and more. Many of the documentaries are available for free viewing online, and many are available for sale on one or more sites. (Note: the list of films, and of sites for viewing and purchase is not exhaustive. There are many more to explore.)

Teta, Alf Marra (Grandma, A Thousand Times) (2010)

This touching documentary comes from an Emirati/Qatari/Lebanese partnership. The film's producers'website describes it as: "... a poetic documentary that puts a feisty Beiruti grandmother at the center of … exercises concocted by her grandson to capture and commemorate her many worlds before they are erased by the passage of time and her eventual death." The film won two awards at the 2010 Doha Tribeca Film Festival

The War You Don't See (2010)

Journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger looks at the media's role in war, from World War I up to current/recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is My Picture When I was Dead (2010)

This film by Jordanian documentary filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad tells the story of Bashir Mraish. In 1983, the world press reported that Bashir, aged four, was killed during the assassination of his father, Mamoun Mraish, a top PLO lieutenant. However, when the bodies were taken to the hospital, Bashir turned out to be alive. What happened to him over the years ...? The film won the First Price in the Muhr Arab Documentary category at the 2010 Dubai International Film Festival.

Veiled Voices (2009)

This film takes a look at three Muslim women religious leaders from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt.

Rachel: An American Conscience (2009)

Palestinian documentary filmmaker Yahya Barakat's tells the story of American Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old peace activist who was deliberately crushed to death by an Israeli-driven bulldozer. She was killed while trying to act as a human shield to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip in March 2003.

Budrus (2009)

An award-winning documentary about a Palestinian leader, Ayed Morrar, who unites Fatah, Hamas, and Israelis in an unarmed movement to save his village from destruction. The film has won numerous rewards, including special mention in the Best New Documentary Filmmaker category at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Witness Award at the Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival, and the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Tea on the Axis of Evil (2009)

Jean Marie Offenbacher moved to Syria to meet ordinary people and see what life was like when Syria was admitted to the "Axis of Evil."

Waltz with Bashir (original release: Vals Im Bashir) (2008)

This Israeli animated documentary, written and directed by Ari Folman, and depicts his search for his lost memories from the 1982 Lebanon War. Among the awards won by Waltz with Bashir is the 2009 Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars.

Football Under Cover (2008)

This German/Iranian documentary tells of the story of a women's amateur soccer team from Germany traveling to Iran in an attempt to play with the Iranian women's national soccer team — a team which had never before had a chance to play against another team! The film won the award for best documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Occupation 101: Voices of the Silenced Majority (2007)

This film looks at the root and current causes of Israeli- Palestinian conflict (dating back to the late 1800s), as well as the US role in the conflict. The documentary includes interviews with American and Israeli scholars, NGO representatives, religious leaders, and humanitarian workers, and is narrated by Alison Weir, founder of If Americans Knew.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007)

This film looks at the 2003 scandal involving the abuse of Iraqi detainees by US military personnel in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison. The film won the 2007 Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Special.

AIPAC - The Israeli Lobby (2007)

AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is the pro- Israeli lobby in the USA. The documentary particularly discusses issues around the March 2006 article "The Israel Lobby and US foreign policy," by American political scientists John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Steve Walt (Harvard). Their article was later expanded into a book (of the same name) published in 2007.

Rageh Inside Iran (2007 TV)

This BBC documentary by Rageh Omaar, a Somali/British journalist, looks at Iran through the eyes of its ordinary citizens.

No One Ever Wins (2007)

A film that look at life in Lebanon in the aftermath of the war between Hezbollah and the Israeli military in July 2006. Interviewees include American/Lebanese businessmen, a Shi'ite schoolteacher that lost several of her students in the bombardment, families whose homes were destroyed by rockets, and United Nations peacekeepers.

Recycle (2007)

This is a film by Jordanian documentary filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad. From the official website: "Zarqa, Jordan's second largest city, is an industrial center with more than one million residents. At a time of America's ongoing "Global War on Terrorism," the everyday conversations of its citizens revolve around not only the local economy or the lack of freedom of expression, but also on the need for pan- Arab unity, the rise of political Islam, and whether or not a faithful Muslim has a religious duty to engage in jihad. … RECYCLE is a portrait of the city as seen through the eyes of Abu Ammar, a forty-something Jordanian who served as a mujahid during the Afghan-Soviet War, and the former owner of a failed grocery store who now struggles to support his two wives and eight children by collecting discarded cardboard for sale to a recycling plant. A deeply religious man, he has also collected thousands of scraps of paper with Islamic sayings that he intends to use in a book on jihad, as soon as he can find a publisher." The film won the Cinematography Award in the World Cinema-Documentary category at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

A Summer Not to Forget (2007)

Carol Mansour's short (27 minute) documentary about the 2006 war between the Israeli military and Hezbollah fighters. "In July 2006, Hezbollah captured 2 Israeli soldiers and Israel reciprocated with 34 days of continuous Israeli bombardment. Using powerful and disturbing images, the film tells a story of yet another war on Lebanon: 1,200 killed, 4,000 injured, one million displaced, 78 bridges destroyed, 15,000 homes damaged, 15,000 tonnes of oil spilled on 80km of the Mediterranean coastline, 57 collective massacres and much more." The film won the 2009 Jury's Award at the Sole Luna Documentary Festival.

Nothing is Safe (2006-2008)

A three-disc collection of documentaries on the 2006 war between the Israeli military and Hezbollah fighters, including Carol Mansour's "A Summer Not to Forget," Mai Masr's "33 Days," Ana Nogueira's "Samidoun" (Steadfastness), and more.

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People (2006)

As the film's official website explains, "This groundbreaking documentary dissects a slanderous aspect of cinematic history that has run virtually unchallenged from the earliest days of silent film to today's biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Featuring acclaimed author Dr. Jack Shaheen, the film explores a long line of degrading images of Arabs — from Bedouin bandits and submissive maidens to sinister sheikhs and gun-wielding "terrorists" — along the way offering devastating insights into the origin of these stereotypic images, their development at key points in US history, and why they matter so much today."

Occupied Minds (2006)

In this documentary, two journalists, Jamal Dajani, a Palestinian-American and David Michaelis, an Israeli, travel to Jerusalem, where both were born, to provide insight into the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to explore new solutions. In the process, they interview activists, government officials, and civilians on both sides of the conflict.

Deir Yassin Remembered (2006)

This film details the April 9, 1948 attack by commandos of the Irgun and the Stern Gang on the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin (pop. approx 750). The village, set outside of the area to be assigned by the United Nations to the Jewish State, was nonetheless in the corridor between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and so was slated for occupation. Some citizens fled; over 100 men, women, and children were murdered; and 53 orphaned children were abandoned at Jerusalem's city walls.

Encounter Point (2006)

As stated on the official website, the film "... follows a former Israeli settler, a Palestinian ex-prisoner, a bereaved Israeli mother and a wounded Palestinian bereaved brother who risk their lives and public standing to promote a nonviolent end to the conflict. Their journeys lead them to the unlikeliest places to confront hatred within their communities. The film explores what drives them and thousands of other like-minded civilians to overcome anger and grief to work for grassroots solutions. It is a film about the everyday leaders in our midst."

Iraq in Fragments (2006)

From the press kit: "Iraq in Fragments illuminates post-war Iraq in three acts, building a vivid picture of a country pulled in different directions by religion and ethnicity. ... Part One follows Mohammed Haithem, an 11-year-old auto mechanic in the mixed Sheik Omar neighborhood in the heart of old Baghdad ... Part Two is filmed inside the Shiite political/religious movement of Moqtada Sadr ... Part Three follows Iraqi Kurds as they assert their bid for independence, rebelling against the past atrocities of Baghdad rule." The film also has special features, including Sari's Mother, a short documentary that tells the story of an Iraqi mother who seeks healthcare for her 10-year-old son who is dying of AIDS. Among its awards, Iraq in Fragments won three awards at the 2006 Sundance Festival: Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Director. It was also nominated for Best Documentary in the 2006 Academy Awards.

The Iron Wall (2005)

This film looks at the establishment of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank territory and the controversial barrier wall, and their effect on the peace process. The film includes interviews with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists and analysts.

What the Ancients Did for Us - The Islamic World (2005 Mini-Series Segment)

This is one of a nine-episode series of documentaries by the BBC, which looked at the impact of ancient civilizations on the modern world. The film looks at technology, architecture, and more.

The Blood of My Brother: A Story of Death in Iraq (2005)

From the official website: "After years of hard work, Ra'ad, an Iraqi portrait photographer, has saved enough money to open his own shop. On the night of the opening, while volunteering to guard the ancient mosque in Kadhimiya, Ra'ad is shot and killed by an American patrol. Longing for revenge, Ra'ad's brother Ibrahim dreams of joining the Shia uprising against the American occupation. But as the only male left in the family, Ibrahim must take on the role of breadwinner."

House of Saud (2005)

This PBS Frontline documentary is described as "A special history on Saudi Arabia, its troubled relationship with America, and the challenges confronting a nation where tradition and modernity are in violent collision."

Control Room (2004)

This film, by award-winning Arab-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, looked at Al Jazeera's coverage of the Iraq war. The film won several awards, including the 2004 International Documentary Association Honorable Mention for Feature Documentaries and the FIPRESCI Prize at the Sydney Film Festival.

Death in Gaza (2004)

In spring 2003, filmmaker James Miller and reporter Saira Shah traveled to the Gaza Strip to film three Palestinian children growing up in the bullet-riddled streets of the Rafah Refugee Camp. The plan had been to film the Israeli side after first visiting Gaza. But late on May 2, while leaving the home of a Palestinian family, and while carrying a white flag, Miller was shot in the neck and killed instantly by a soldier manning an Israeli tank. The film won the 2005 BAFTA TV award for Best Current Affairs, and the 2005 Emmy awards for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking, Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming (Single or Multi-Camera), and Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming.

Until When (2004)

This documentary follows four Palestinian families living in Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem.

Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land (2004)

From the official website, the film "... provides a striking comparison of U.S. and international media coverage of the crisis in the Middle East, zeroing in on how structural distortions in U.S. coverage have reinforced false perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ... Through the voices of scholars, media critics, peace activists, religious figures, and Middle East experts, Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land carefully analyzes and explains how — through the use of language, framing, and context — the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza remains hidden in the news media, and Israeli colonization of the occupied territories appears to be a defensive move rather than an offensive one. The documentary also explores the ways that U.S. journalists, for reasons ranging from intimidation to a lack of thorough investigation, have become complicit in carrying out Israel's PR campaign. At its core, the documentary raises questions about the ethics and role of journalism, and the relationship between media and politics."

Syria: Land of Friendly People and Hidden Treasure (2004)

Documentary film maker Wendy Campbell's travelogue/documentary about Syria.

Breaking The Silence - Truth and Lies in the War On Terror (2003 TV)

This film, by journalist and documentary filmmaker John Pilger, is, "An inquiry into the "war on terror" and its affects on "liberated" countries."

Inside Mecca (TV 2003)

This National Geographic documentary follows three Muslims from different backgrounds as they complete their Hajj pilgrimage.

Israel's Secret Weapon (TV 2003)

This BBC documentary on Israel's weapons of mass destruction won a 2003 Peabody Award.

Checkpoint (2003)

Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir looks at daily interactions between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians at a variety of checkpoints on Palestinian lands. The film has won several awards, including the Best International Documentary (2004) at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature (2004) at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Gaza Strip (2002)

American filmmaker James Longley filmed this documentary in Gaza in 2001 during the Second Intifada, and follows the stories of ordinary Palestinians, following the election of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, including the first major armed incursion into "Area A" by IDF forces during this intifada.

Promised Lands (1974)

Writer/director Susan Sontag's documentary shot following the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Film Festivals, etc.:

Middle East

USA

Other

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