What makes a movie cult? It has less to do with the movie’s appeal, but entirely to do with that strange (and oddly satisfying) feeling a movie leaves you with. It’s like making an incredible discovery.
And the region is not short of them. The Arab world has a distinct relationship with the art of moviemaking. From its earliest days, Arab cinema has long-been a medium through which we’ve worked through our cultural (and identity) struggles.
Although these films didn’t become international blockbusters, they’ve rightfully gained cult status over the years for their accurate depictions of the beauty and the mundanity of our cultural characteristics.
Al Irhab Wal Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab) – Egypt
No movie list is complete without a mention of Adel Imam. In this 1992 hit, the actor plays the role of Ahmed, an Egyptian man working through his frustrations with bureaucracy. The movie begins with Ahmed filing paperwork to transfer his children to a different school, which somehow leads to him accidentally committing an act of terrorism.
Urs Al Jalil (Wedding in Galilee) – Palestine
In this film, Palestinian director Michel Khleifi offers a simplistic-but-not-demeaning portrayal of the complex dynamic between Palestinians and Israelis. The movie, released in 1987, tells the story of Abu Adil as he struggles with his village’s imposed curfew in his effort to throw his son a lavish wedding.
Satin Rouge (Red Satin) – Tunisia
Released in 2002, Satin Rouge was Raja Amari’s directorial debut. The film is a feminist manifesto in more ways than one. The Tunisian director and screenwriter cast Hiam Abbass as Lilia, a middle-aged widow, who finds her freedom after accidently stumbling onto the stage of the local cabaret.
Afwah Wa Araneb (Mouths and Rabbits) – Egypt
This 1977 comedy is a socially aware, still-relevant classic. Henry Barakat, cast his favourite leading lady Faten Hammama to play the role of Naema. The film touches on themes of feminism, social class, and internal displacement as it follows the story of Naema escaping both her large family and a forced marriage.
Sukkar Banat (Caramel) – Lebanon
Until recently, Nadine Labaki’s was known for directing some of our favourite music videos. Her first feature film, Caramel, centres around the lives of five women in a Beirut beauty shop. Labaki, who also stars in the film, tells a story about love within Lebanese society with a certain level of intimacy and subtlety that sets it apart from your average chick-flick.
Mille Mois (A Thousand Months) – Morocco
Set in a small town in the Atlas Mountains, Mille Mois is the story of a young Moroccan boy, Mehdi, and his community. Mehdi—played by Fouad Labied—navigates family life, school, and girls, without his father, who he believes to be in France. Meanwhile, his father is actually in prison and Mehdi’s mom and paternal grandfather work to keep it a secret.
Bab El Hadid (Cairo Station) – Egypt
Bab El Hadid is considered Youssef Chahine’s crowning achievement. The film is set in Cairo’s central train station where Kinawi, a newspaper vendor, does nothing but fantasize about Hannouma, a beautiful young woman illegally selling drinks at the same station. Chahine also introduces a third character, Abu Serib, the man Hannouma is in love with. The movie, which was released in 1958, centres around Kinawi and Hannouma, her love for attention, and his obsession with women.
El Kalaa (La Citadelle) – Algeria
Written and directed by Mohammed Chouikh, 1988, El Kalaa is a movie about marriage, magic, and social pressures. The film’s central character Kaddour falls in love with a married woman and ends up casting a spell on her. Once people find out, Kaddour’s adoptive father is given an ultimatum – marry off his son, or divorce his 3 wives.
Bab’Aziz Le Prince Qui Contemplait son Âme (The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul) – Tunisia
The story begins with Bab’Aziz, a blind dervish who aimlessly wanders the desert with his granddaughter, in search of a mystical Sufi meeting that occurs once every 30 years. The film is complex, intriguing, full of fantastic imagery and religious symbolism. Despite mixed reviews from critics, Nacer’s film found its fan-base in those who relish in stories of longing and belonging.