One of the joys of cinema is its ability to immerse us in the everyday experiences of people across the globe. That’s particularly true of Islamic filmmaking, which offers a first-hand account of life in the Middle East that’s far removed from the bulk of Western news headlines.
Explore the reality of life in an Islamic country with these 10 films, all available on SBS On Demand, and engage with experiences closer to home in The Mosque Next Door.
Bringing the Western to the Bedouin people and giving Jordan its first Oscar nomination in the process, Theeb tells a heartbreaking tale of struggle and survival over a century ago. British-Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar explores the fictional story of his titular character (played by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), a nomadic boy who endeavours to help an English soldier (Jack Fox) navigate his way through treacherous terrain. Set amid war-torn tumult between British and Ottoman troops during the First World War, it’s a moving and insightful effort made with care, thoughtfulness and an impressive, largely non-professional cast.
Asghar Farhadi was already an accomplished filmmaker and a leading voice in chronicling oppression in his Iranian homeland through astute, affecting personal dramas before he made A Separation. But his fifth feature brought his efforts and artistry to a broader audience. An Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, it shines a scathing spotlight on class and gender disparities, particularly when it comes to marriage. Farhadi was also nominated for a screenwriting Oscar — a rare feat — while the film was showered with accolades around the world.
The Reluctant Infidel
Finding comedy in cultural divisions can be a tricky task, but The Reluctant Infidel approaches the area with ample heart. In a story designed to tackle stereotypes and inspire laughs, the film follows the exploits of not-particularly-devout British Muslim Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili), who learns he was actually born into a Jewish family. Of course, an identity crisis ensues, but what this English flick lacks in narrative surprises, it makes up for in a committed lead performance and the determination to breakdown barriers.
Life during the Islamic Revolution has rarely looked as stylish as in Persepolis thanks to the graphic novel-to-film adaptation’s striking animation style, although not its narrative. Indeed, while Marjane Satrapi’s big screen version of her own autobiographical comic proves a feast for the eyes with its inky, expressive, monochrome images, its story couldn’t be more powerful. Based on the author and director’s childhood in Tehran, it’s an account of a spirited rebel forced to balance her outspoken dismay for Iran’s punitive regime with her connection to her culture.
For a landmark movie, Wadjda couldn’t be more intimate. That’s entirely fitting for a film that demonstrates how small acts of rebellion can make an enormous difference, if only for the life of one Saudi Arabian girl. An 11-year-old who refuses to confirm, a shiny green bicycle and the importance of little victories in providing hope all sit at the centre of the first feature made by a female Saudi filmmaker and the first full-length effort made entirely in the country at all. Director Haifaa al-Mansour’s sensitive, assured style has since seen her make the jump to English-language features, first with biopic Mary Shelley and next with upcoming rom-com Nappily Ever After.
Following a sporting team is one of life’s simple pleasures. For women in Iran, however, the joys of live competition isn’t something they’re allowed to experience thanks to a decree that has seen some fans arrested and jailed. That’s the reality Jafar Panahi’s Offside jumps into, telling of female soccer fans eager to attend a World Cup qualifying match and the lengths they’re forced to go to to achieve a dream much of the rest of the world takes for granted. It’s lighter in tone than much of Panahi’s other work, but just as committed to probing the prejudice and oppression in his country.
When Pigs Have Wings
There’s comedy in the premise behind When Pigs Have Wings — in a culture that eschews pork, not only catching a pig in a fishing net but realising the financial windfall it could bring in times of struggle instantly comes laced with laughs. Satirical, sensitive and statement-making all at once, the first feature from French journalist-turned-filmmaker Sylvain Estibal finds the balance necessary to make its concept work as Jafar (Sasson Gabay) endeavours to hide his find from his wife (Baya Belal) while secretly arranging the sale of the animal’s semen for breeding.
The last film by Malaysian writer/director Yasmin Ahmad before her death in 2009, Talentime continues her quest to make movies that cross cultural divides. Set in her primarily Islamic homeland, the movie follows a Malaysian girl and a Hindi Indian boy who cross paths at a school talent show and find more in common than their performing skills. That might sound like standard Romeo and Juliet territory, but the feature’s moving portrait includes insights into the lives and passions of other students, including those outside the Malay norm.
Off-screen, Utopia weathered quite the intriguing storm. Though selected as Afghanistan’s submission to the 2016 Academy Awards, it was later disqualified for containing too much English dialogue. Controversy aside, director Hassan Nazer delves into a triptych of narratives linked to an Afghani woman’s desire to have a baby. When Janan (Martine Malalai Zikria) travels to the UK to make her dreams a reality through artificial insemination, she’s confronted with a spate of complications, including the intervention of William (Andrew Shaver), a medical student who makes a life-changing switch.
Istanbul, Aku Datang!
Within Western filmmaking, features about romances abroad are common fodder — whether exploring new love forged in a foreign land, existing relationships tested over a long distance or finding the middle ground by sending someone in search of their travelling paramour. Within Islamic-themed efforts, it’s a much less familiar concept, but it sits at the heart of Istanbul, Aka Datang! When a Malaysian woman heads to Istanbul to meet up with her boyfriend, amusing antics await, both for the transplanted character and for audiences.