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Arab Films Igniting Hearts And Minds On The Global Stage

Shining Stars of TIFF 2023


By Aya Nassar

The anticipation is building as the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) prepares to take center stage. Running from September 7th to September 17th, this year’s 48th edition showcases an exceptional selection of Arab films that promise to captivate and leave their mark on the audiences’ hearts and minds. 


The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was established back in 1976 and, since then, it has impressively risen to become one of the globe's largest and most esteemed cinematic events, second only to Cannes. It has also emerged as a prominent indicator of future success in the awards season with following successes at all sorts of prestigious awards, including the Oscars. This is why, for directors and filmmakers, the opportunity to have their work premiered or screened during the 10-day film extravaganza is undeniably significant. It is only due, then, to celebrate this year’s lineup, showcasing an array of compelling films by Arab filmmakers. 


In a year marked by disruptions due to the SAG-AFTRA strike, significant changes are expected across many of the world's major film festivals as movies are withdrawn from the roster and some of the onscreen talent, in the finished productions, not being able to be physically present to promote their films. However, it is all the more remarkable and a cause for celebration of the finished productions and the fact that Arab representation remains steadfast and resolute. 


With an impressive lineup that spans genres, styles, and perspectives, here's a closer look at the films that will illuminate the festival screens and leave us celebrating the rich diversity and exceptional talents that Arab filmmakers bring to the global stage.

1. 'Defiant' by Karim Amer
Renowned filmmaker Karim Amer presents "Defiant." With an unprecedented lens into the geopolitical landscape, Amer obtains exclusive behind-the-scenes access to Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and influential figures within the administration. Against the backdrop of Russia's invasive actions, the film chronicles their valiant efforts to counter disinformation and protect their country. "Defiant" showcases a gripping narrative of courage, determination, and the resilience of a nation in the face of external threats.


2. 'Four Daughters' by Kaouther Ben Hania
In "Four Daughters," Kaouther Ben Hania masterfully captures a mother's heart-wrenching journey as her daughters become ensnared by extremism. Drawing from a poignant true story, the film centers on Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian housekeeper in her forties from humble beginnings. Overcome by grief, Olfa witnesses her two teenage daughters becoming radicalized, eventually running away to join Daesh in Libya. The story unfurls against a backdrop of societal complexities, showcasing the ripple effects of a family's struggle against ideological forces.

3. 'Hajjan' by Abu Bakr Shawky

Director Abu Bakr Shawky takes audiences on an awe-inspiring and legendary coming-of-age journey with "Hajjan." Immersed in the electrifying universe of Bedouin camel racing, the film follows the story of Hajjan as he navigates the high-stakes world of competition, camaraderie, and tradition. Shawky's masterful storytelling captures the spirit of rebellion and the pursuit of identity, set against the expansive desert landscapes that hold both challenges and revelations.

4. 'Mandoob' by Ali Kalthami
Ali Kalthami's darkly comedic debut, "Mandoob," provides an intriguing window into the rarely explored modern Saudi nightlife. The film introduces us to an exhausted delivery app driver in Riyadh, who embarks on an unexpected journey into bootlegging as a means to break free from his monotonous routine. Amid the neon-lit streets and hidden corners of the city, Kalthami skillfully crafts a narrative that delves into the complexities of life in a rapidly changing society.


5. 'NAGA' by Meshal Aljaser
In "NAGA," Saudi filmmaker Meshal Aljaser presents a thrilling narrative of suspense and urgency. The story revolves around a young woman stranded in the desert, racing against the impending curfew to reach home. With the knowledge that her strict father's consequences could be dire, the film intensifies as the clock ticks. Aljaser skillfully constructs a high-stakes thriller.


6. 'Sisterhood' by Nora El Hourch
French-Moroccan director Nora El Hourch weaves a tapestry of friendship, identity, and disparity in "Sisterhood." The film revolves around three teenage girls whose unbreakable bond is tested when a significant event exposes the divergent paths of their racial backgrounds, social statuses, and cultural advantages. As the threads of their friendship are stretched, "Sisterhood" delves into the complexities of adolescence and the enduring power of human connection.