Here is KHAMSA’s pick of the Arab films you should be watching immediately

As autumn sets in, there’s no better time to immerse yourself in the world of cinema. This selection by Selma Chougar will take you from Cairo Station in the late 1950s to contemporary Iran, passing through the setting of 16th-century Algeria and everything in between. Explore a very versatile list of films from the Arab World and beyond that you might have missed.

Cinema serves as a means to escape reality, or conversely, to view our reality from a different perspective. Join KHAMSA on this cinematic journey through the Arab world and beyond, where you’ll discover hidden cinematic gems and captivating narratives that transport you to different worlds and cultures.

١. Cairo Station by Youssef Chahine (1958)

Classic Arab Films: Cairo Station

With Cairo Station, also known as Bab al-Hadid, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine immerses viewers in the lives of impoverished people living at Cairo Station during the 1950s. The action takes place exclusively at the station, with the audience following the daily lives of these people. It also shows the obsession of Qinawi for Hannuma, a sensual woman portrayed by the famous Egyptian actress, Hind Rostom.

Qinawi is a young man who is lame and sells newspapers at Cairo train station, but he is ridiculed by women because of his handicap. When Hannuma rejects his dream of starting a family with him, the men become furious and plot to kill her. A fun fact about this film is that no one wanted to play the main role of Qinawi, so Youssef Chahine decided to play it himself.

٢. Papicha by Mounia Meddour (2019)

Papicha is set during the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. The story follows the life of Nedjma, portrayed by Lyna Khoudri, an 18-year-old student who has a passion for fashion and enjoys going out with her friends from university. She dreams of becoming a stylist and occasionally sells her creations to her classmates at university or in the bathrooms of Algiers nightclubs.

Their carefree lives are disrupted by a campaign enforcing the wearing of the burqa for women, which intensifies each day throughout the film. Nedjma and her friends set out to use art and fashion to fight for their freedom by organizing a fashion show. Directed and co-produced by French-Algerian director, Mounia Meddour, Papicha makes for an exciting watch.

٣. It Must Be Heaven by Elia Souleiman (2019)

In It Must Be Heaven, film director Elia Suleiman plays his own role as an eternal observer of the world’s absurdity, while remaining entirely silent. He decides to leave his homeland, Palestine, to travel to Paris and New York.

Throughout the film, Suleiman appears disconnected from the world around him. Whether it is gazing from his window in Nazareth, silently observing a man who claims to be his neighbour and who steals lemons and tends to his lemon tree as if it were his own, or from his window in Paris, where he observes the everyday absurdities of Parisian life. This disconnect between him and the world underscores the idea that he doesn’t feel a sense of belonging to any particular territory, no matter how far he travels.

٤. The Last Queen by Damien Ounouri and Adila Bendimerad (2023)

Set in 1516 in Algiers, Queen Zaphira lives in a thriving environment until the pirate Aruj Barbarossa tries to conquer the city and her heart. As Barbarossa liberates the city from Spanish rule, King Salim Toumi dies mysteriously. Zaphira’s life is turned upside down, with the conflict making her stronger and braver as she stands up to the pirate. Once carefree in her palace, she gradually becomes a fighting queen.

The Last Queen is a historical fiction film that immerses the viewer in the Algerian Kingdom of the early 16th century, a period often overlooked in Algerian history. The attention to detail in traditional clothing and the use of different languages, including Arabic and Kabyle, adds a historical touch to this fictional plot. The film, directed by Damien Ounouri and Adila Bendimerad, received a prize for its screenplay at the Amman Film Festival 2023.

٥. The Blue Caftan by Maryam Touzani (2023)

The Blue Caftan takes place in a hand-sewing store located in the Medina of Salé, in Morocco. The audience is introduced to Halim, a dressmaker portrayed by Saleh Bakri, and his wife Mina, played by Lubna Azabal. This Moroccan film narrates the story of the challenges faced by Halim, who specializes in crafting traditional caftans by hand, in a world increasingly embracing modern machinery for caftan production in nearby stores of the country. It is a touching film that showcases the loyalty and devotion of a couple in the face of adversity.

٦. The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966)

The Battle of Algiers is a seminal film that delves into the Algerian War for Independence, focusing particularly on the intense battle that unfolded in the streets of Algiers. Set in October 1957, the film follows the journey of Ali La Pointe, who played a pivotal role in leading the battle within the city. After years of hiding in the Casbah of Algiers, Ali reflects on the path that led him from a life of delinquency to becoming a key guerrilla leader for the F.L.N (National Liberation Front).

The film features a powerful and evocative musical score composed by Ennio Moriccone, and is directed by the Italian filmmaker, Gillo Pontecorvo. Through its gripping narrative and striking imagery, The Battle of Algiers offers a compelling portrayal of the struggle for Algerian independence, and remains a significant work in the realm of political cinema.

٧. Leila’s Brothers by Saeed Roustayi (2022)

Leila’s Brothers is a fiction set in contemporary Iran, specifically in Teheran. Leila lives with her four brothers and her parents. She strives to take care of everyone in the family while living in a country affected by international economic sanctions. It’s an engaging story that illustrates the struggles of an Iranian family as they strive to overcome poverty while maintaining an image of control and pride among their neighbouring families. It is directed by Saeed Roustayi, who also directed the popular Just 6.5.

٨. Mustang by Denize Gamze Erguven (2015)

A poignant and thought-provoking film that delves into the lives of five young sisters who are not only siblings, but also orphans living in a rural Turkish village. The story provides an intimate glimpse into their daily existence, which is initially marked by carefree moments of playing with young boys and embracing the joys of youth.

The sisters’ lives take a dramatic turn when a seemingly innocent play with the boys is misunderstood and leads to their punishment, which is both harsh and restrictive. They then find themselves trapped in a rigidly traditional and patriarchal society that seeks to control their actions, desires and futures. Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang captivates audiences with its powerful storytelling, beautiful cinematography, and compelling performances by the young cast.

٩. Four Daughters by Kaouther Ben Hania (2023)

Four Daughters is a Tunisian documentary directed by Kaouther Ben Hania. The film explores the youthfulness of Olfa Hamrouni’s daughters and how it led them to leave home. To depict this story, Ben Hania invited professional actresses to portray Olfa’s daughters in front of her. The unique approach allows viewers to witness these actresses playing the roles while the real Olfa observes them re-enacting their own lives. This creative direction creates a mirror effect, placing Olfa face-to-face with her own reality.

١٠. The King of Algiers by Elias Belkeddar (2023)

When Omar receives the news that he will be returning to Algeria to escape imprisonment in France, his initial reaction is one of devastation. However, as he settles into his new life, he quickly discovers the opportunities it presents and begins building his empire. Balancing his burgeoning love story and his ventures in the world of business, Omar must use his wits and cunning to navigate the complex landscape of Algiers. Directed by Elias Belkeddar, The King of Algiers offers a fresh perspective on the gangster genre, infusing it with humour and some unique Algerian flair.

Selma Chougar is a French independent journalist of Algerian origin who writes for several magazines based in Paris, London, and Dubai. Culture and societal phenomena in the Arab world are her areas of expertise. She contributes to both French and English-language magazines.