While Egyptian films have given the region a place in the international cinema scene, the Arab world is not particularly well known for its documentaries. But over the last few years, a number of productions have been putting the region on the map—shedding light on the various realities from North Africa to the Middle East.
Not only that, but a number of releases in the last two years alone have proven themselves momentous for within the region—providing Arabs with a critical lens into the realities we live through and giving a voice to stories that rarely get told.
From Syria to Algeria, we round up our favourite life-changing documentaries you need to watch.
Last Men In Aleppo
Written and directed by Syrian director Feras Fayyad, Last Men In Aleppo made headlines last year when it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film is a raw portrayal of life and war in what was once Syria’s most populated city. The documentary puts particular focus on the work of the White Helmets—a non-profit organization known for its search-and-rescue missions. But perhaps the film’s most grippling and heart-wrenching scenes revolve around the stories of three of organization’s founders who struggle with the perplexities that come with war, and their inner battles concerning whether or not they should stay in their war-torn homes to fight or escape to safety.
Of Sheep And Men
Whether or not you’ve got an interest in understanding the underpinnings of Algerian society, Karim Sayad’s Of Sheep and Men is a must watch. The documentary is an intimate portrayal of Algeria’s poor communities. With a focus on Hamdi, a 16-year-old who is determined to turn his sheep into a fighter and Samir, a father looking to sell his sheep to the highest bidder for Eid al-Adha—Sayad paints a picture of the North African nation that’s rarely seen.
Taste of Cement
Being a labour migrant comes with its difficulties, but when your homeland is in the midst of war—the situation is muddled even further. Taste of Cement sheds light on the realities of what it’s really like being a worker in exile—putting the focus on Syrian refugees in Lebanon who were forced to leave their homes and the destruction of war to build skyscrapers that were destroyed during the Lebanese civil war. With a curfew in place, the workers are unable to leave the construction sites, and thus stuck under the concrete night after night, only to spend their days back on the field rebuilding after a war while grappling with the current realities of their very own war-torn nation.
Once with a prominent career as a plastic surgeon, Dr. Bassem Youssef decided to leave it all behind after the start of the Arab Spring to start Egypt’s very first political satire show. Despite backlash from the government, his show, entitled “Al Bernameg” was an instant hit, drawing in over thirty million viewers per episode. But as his show continued to see success—so much so that he became known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, the Egyptian government started tightening its ropes, and Bassem became its target. The documentary is Bassem’s tale surrounding the struggles of living under oppressive regimes—and ultimately a story of determination.
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People
Directed by Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally, Reel Bad Arabs sheds light on a struggle known to many. The documentary trails the history of Arabs portrays in Hollywood’s films—dating to the era of silent films. Written by and featuring the acclaimed Lebanese Jack Shaheen—who is known for his work surround the topics of race and ethnicity, the documentary traces the origins of the stereotypes often perpetuated by Hollywood of Arabs as bandits (à la Aladdin) to the now common portrayal as terrorists.