Metaphors, silences and first love: An overview of recent Middle Eastern cinema

When Middle East LDN reported that the film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia left the audience “distinctly restless”, another blogger, Adina of Nazar Blue, quickly commented that this was part of the style of Turkish film.

“In my experience its typically Turkish to have long contemplative silences in film. Turks adore the use of silence – they make good use of it in their most tragic or gripping films.”

She added: “The first time I watched revered film Uzak I was quite annoyed – then I slowly got used to these Turkish ways after watching Climates, and other films from shown at the London Turkish Film Festival. After a staying with the in-laws in Istanbul and watching tragic soap operas, I now totally get these silences.”

It’s an important point. But if you don’t have a helpful in-law at hand, how do you make sense of a film’s cultural references? Here is our introduction to film across the Middle East:


Despite censorship, Iran has long had a thriving cinema scene, including both home grown blockbusters and art house film. Strict rules about the portrayal of sexuality means that much of the filmmaker’s art is in the metaphors he or she creates, according to Reza Aslan, a writer on Middle Eastern entertainment culture. Other features include an austere filming style, minimal use of music, and plots featuring children.

Watch: About Elly a 2009 film by Asghar Farhadi, director of the Oscar-winning A Separation

Follow: @LondonIranianff @IranianFilmFest


During the 20th century, Egypt led the way in Arab cinema. Although its output has dwindled in latter years, the fall of the Mubarak regime has led many to expect an influx of arty types keen to put the revolution on silver screen. However, the imprisonment of a popular comedian this month has already raised concerns about censorship.

Watch: Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician a documentary reflecting on revolutionary Egypt

Follow: @AlaaMosbah @RiverDryFilm


Palestinian cinema suffers from a lack of infrastructure and funding – as a result directors are forced to hire novices and embark on guerrilla filming. Gaza film-makers also have to contend with Hamas morality police.

In recent years, Israeli film has become both more creative and more pessimistic as directors address the ongoing tensions with Israel’s neighbours and Palestine.

Watch: Waltz With Bashir An animated investigation into Israel’s actions during the war with Lebanon and Paradise Now which follows two Palestinians who are preparing to become suicide bombers.

Follow: @LondonPFF @IsraelFilmFest


A Lebanese film blogger we spoke to says that while a “Lebanese” style is shaping up it is yet to take a definitive form. “The most common theme is without doubt the wars that have torn the country over the years.” However some directors manage to focus on issues like identity crisis and social problems.

Watch: Stray Bullet A young woman tries to assert her independence against the backdrop of civil war.


The Gulf States

Gulf cinema is yet to take off – most countries have only a handful of films to their name. A new UAE film studio is still trying to navigate a path between contributing to big budget Western-style movies and promoting local talent.

Watch: Sea Shadow A boy tries to follow his crush in a conservative Emirati neighbourhood.

Follow: @GulfFilmFest @AbuDhabiFF @dubaifilm

Have we missed anything? Any other suggestions for films? Let us know

Julia Rampen


About Julia Rampen

London-based journalist. Find me on Twitter @JuliaRampen

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