The Academy Awards, better known as “the Oscars,” have long wrestled with how best to reflect the diversity of the film industry in the United States and across the world. In one of the more notorious examples, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite trended on social media after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which administers the Oscars, gave all the nominations for acting to white men and women. Last year, the Academy encountered criticism once again because the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Director consisted only of men.
For all these missteps, the Oscars have made some significant progress in recent years. At the 92nd Academy Awards in February 2020, the South Korean film Parasite netted the Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture; the film’s director, Bong Joon-ho, won the Academy Award for Best Director. Parasite’s runaway success raised hopes that more films from outside the United States could make inroads at the Oscars.
The Arab world, home to several filmmaking powerhouses, has produced a number of movies that will serve as strong contenders at the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, 2022. Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Tunisia all submitted proposed nominees for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. No submission from an Arab country has landed an Oscar since 1969, when the Algerian-French thriller film Z received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film — known since 2020 as the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.
Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Tunisia all submitted proposed nominees.
While countries across the world can propose nominees, the Academy will only nominate a handful to compete for an Oscar. Therefore, obtaining an Oscar nomination represents a prestigious accomplishment in and of itself. The Academy will announce the nominees on February 8, 2022.
In advance of the 94th Academy Awards, the Lebanese and Saudi submissions are already attracting significant attention from critics. The Tambour of Retribution, a Saudi romance film about the daughter of a singer and the son of an executioner, has won awards at three Arab film festivals over the last two years. The drama film Costa Brava, Lebanon, about a Lebanese family, took home prizes from events in Canada, Egypt, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
However, one submission from the Arab world generated headlines not through its accumulation of awards but because of its provocative subject. Amira, a Jordanian drama film, depicts the story of a Palestinian teenager conceived using sperm smuggled out of the Israeli prison holding the man claiming to be her father. The backlash proved swift: an article published by the Middle East Monitor, for example, decried Amira as “Zionist sperm in the womb of Arab cinema,” a potent charge in the region. Jordan withdrew the submission in early December in light of the controversy.
The Algerian submission, Héliopolis, has faced its own set of challenges. Algeria had intended for the film, set during the lead-up to the Algerian War, to compete at the 93rd Academy Awards held earlier this year. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, forced the cancellation of Héliopolis’ 2020 premiere in Algeria and the delay of its submission by a year. A recent review in Variety also faulted the film’s characters and style as “clichéd and over-the-top” at times.
Amira and Héliopolis’ troubles hardly mark the first times that Arab submissions to the Oscars have struggled. The Academy came under criticism from many Israelis in 2006, when it nominated the Palestinian film Paradise Now —a meditation on two Palestinians weighing whether to undertake suicide attacks in Israel— for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
At the same time, Palestinians lambasted the Academy’s decision to describe Paradise Now as a submission from “the Palestinian territories” rather than from “Palestine,” which would have implied diplomatic recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state.
These controversies belie Arab cinema’s growing strength at the Oscars over the Academy Awards’ decades-long history.
These controversies belie Arab cinema’s growing strength at the Oscars over the Academy Awards’ decades-long history. The Arab Film and Media Institute notes that an Arab country first submitted a film for consideration at the 1959 Oscars with Cairo Station and that the first Arabic film to win a nomination came in 1967 with The Battle of Algiers. Algeria, perhaps the Arab world’s most successful contender at the Academy Awards, received another two nominations for Le Bal in 1984 and Dust of Life in 1995, following its historic 1969 win with Z.
In the last two decades, the Arab world has set yet more milestones at the Oscars. Paradise Now’s 2006 run made it the first Palestinian film nominated for an Oscar. Between 2010 and 2018, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Tunisia, and Yemen also saw their first Oscar nominations while Algeria and Palestine captured even more nominations of their own. In fact, Lebanon earned two nominations during that period with The Insult and Capernaum.
These successes represent a return on investment for Arab governments that have channeled resources into the motion picture industry. Two decades ago, Algeria created the Algerian Agency for Cultural Outreach to strengthen the country’s cultural industries and the film industry in particular. The new government agency produced 40 films in 2013 alone, according to a 2014 report on Algeria’s culture funded by the European Union. This backing extends to Héliopolis. And Jordan has launched its own campaign to support the motion picture industry through the Royal Film Commission.
As Algeria and Jordan reap the rewards of their support for the visual arts, Morocco seems eager to distinguish itself as a strong potential competitor. The kingdom—already a popular filming location for Western movies set in the Middle East—has been expanding its patronage of domestic films for a number of years. After the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the film industry in Morocco, Moroccan officials accelerated their moves to bolster the budding sector. Casablanca Beats, a drama film about a friendship between a former rapper and his students, will serve as Morocco’s proposed nominee for the 94th Academy Awards.
Casablanca Beats will have to compete against established players as well as some new ones. Somalia entered its first-ever Oscar submission with The Gravedigger’s Wife, a drama film about a Djibouti-based family. The movie swept the Africa Movie Academy Awards this year, winning “best film” and four other prizes. The Gravedigger’s Wife also boasts a rare 95 percent rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that the vast majority of critics enjoyed the film.
The spread of authoritarianism in the region has done few favors for the film industry, which thrives on freedom of speech.
Despite the hopes of cinephiles across the Arab world that this impressive roster of films will lead to a historic win at the Oscars next year, the biggest obstacles to Arab cinema’s international success persist. The spread of authoritarianism and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa has done few favors for the film industry, which thrives in environments conducive to freedom of speech. The withdrawal of Amira speaks to a wider challenge in the region.
Regarding Algeria’s cinematic independence, the 2014 E.U. report assessed that “the audio-visual landscape of Algeria is a mix of state-controlled legislation on media and a partly tolerated (depending on the context) illegal alternative access to international TV and radio channels, making life difficult for independent cinema structures and productions.” The report added, “Indeed, cinema production, creation and direction are all active in Algeria, although very much dependent on the support of the authorities that have massively invested in these areas.”
The threat of censorship in Algeria has hardly dissipated in the intervening years, nor do many other countries in the region offer friendlier environments for boundary-pushing films. Jordan, one of the more open monarchies in the Middle East, set a trouble precedent for the Arab world when the kingdom suspended its Oscar bid after a backlash. If Arab governments compromise on artistic freedoms, Arab movies’ chances at the Academy Awards will suffer.
Arab cinema finds itself between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, films that broach taboos or challenge established narratives will have to overcome significant hurdles for criticism-averse officials to submit them for consideration at the Academy Awards. On the other hand, movies that stick to uncontroversial themes and tried-and-true plots will struggle to grab the attention of critics overseas, an essential element of any successful Oscar campaign.
This paradox looms over predictions about the 94th Academy Awards. If an Arab film takes home an Oscar, the debate over the trajectory of Arab cinema will only grow more heated.