7 Best Middle-Eastern Films Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

In 2005, Palestinian olive farmer Emad Burnat bought a camera to document the birth of his new son, Jibreel. But what was intended as an act of celebration quickly grew into something else, as Burnat inadvertently became a documentarian of the oppression his West Bank village faced when a wall was erected through it and Palestinian farmland illegally appropriated by Israeli settlers. As we come to witness, this reluctant pivot is just another example of everyday life in Bil’in being forcibly reoriented by the occupation, as Burnat captures the daily struggles of life in the village and charts the innocence-shattering effect the occupation has on young Jibreel’s burgeoning consciousness. 

Over his footage of encroaching illegal settlements, the arrests of Palestinian children in the middle of the night, the point-blank shootings of blindfolded and handcuffed peaceful protestors — plus tender snapshots of nature and joyful events in the village — Burnat delivers a poetic, reflective narration that miraculously ties these horrible and hopeful images together. It's this intimacy of perspective that makes 5 Broken Cameras profoundly harrowing and unexpectedly transcendent — a personal document of oppression that is also a testament to the miraculous persistence of the human spirit, the resilience of life and the urge to seek beauty even under truly awful circumstances.

Genre: Crime, Documentary, Drama, War

Actor: Emad Burnat, Mohammed Burnat, Soraya Burnat

Director: Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi

Rating: NR

An absolutely beautiful film about superficiality, arrogance, and heartbreak. It focuses on the life of Aydin, a retired actor who now lives very comfortably managing a small hotel and a number of other small properties. Throughout the film Aydin's image shifts as he tackles the problems of his rather typical life. Having said this, there is nothing else typical about this film. It captures human relationships with an almost frightening precision. It almost feels as though you have an inside view into someone's actual life as Aydin battles it out with his sister Necla and his young wife Nihal. To me this is easily one of the best dramas of the decade, and if you so much as like movies that focus on humans and their interactions, it will be that for you too.  Nuri Bilge Ceylan will make 3 hours pass more quickly than they ever have before.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ayberk Pekcan, Demet Akbag, Ekrem İlhan, Emirhan Doruktutan, Haluk Bilginer, Mehmet Ali Nuroğlu, Mehmet Ali Nuroğlu, Melisa Sözen, Nadir Sarıbacak, Nadir Sarıbacak, Nejat İşler, Nejat İşler, Serhat Kılıç, Serhat Mustafa Kılıç, Serhat Mustafa Kılıç, Tamer Levent

Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

The debut feature by Palestine’s most well-known director, Chronicle of a Disappearance is an unusual movie about the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict in that it's closer to absurdist comedy than anything else. The only physical violence we see here are men cat-fighting in the street or arm-wrestling each other in cafes, and Israeli presence is limited to a couple of bumbling police officers. Chronicle is full of slapstick cinema touches — right down to the Buster Keaton-esque eyes of director Elia Suleiman, who appears here as a silent wanderer — and yet we feel the bitter reality of the occupation framing every deadpan gag. 

Structured as a series of vignettes, Chronicle’s loose form is both a way to depict the stagnation and dry repetition in which Palestinians are stuck and a wry metaphor for all this listlessness. Suleiman speaks plainly in some chapters — such as the one following a woman who is repeatedly turned down from renting an apartment in Jerusalem because she’s Arab — and more obliquely in others, forcing you to recall the movie’s setting to understand his often-understated commentary. A singular film from an utterly unique director, Chronicle of a Disappearance is both a portrait of a country’s erosion and a quietly defiant act of resistance.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ali Suliman, Elia Suleiman, Fawaz Eilemi, Fuad Suleiman, Iaha Mouhamad, Jamel Daher, Juliet Mazzawi, Leonid Alexeenko, Nazira Suleiman, Ola Tabari

Director: Elia Suleiman

Michael Jackson’s death triggers the sudden unraveling of a young imam’s buttoned-up life in this idiosyncratic Egyptian character study. The news of the singer’s passing sets Khaled (Ahmed El-Fishawy) straining against reawakened memories of his youth as a mullet-sporting MJ fanatic, before his joyful creative spark was stamped out by two disparate forces: a mocking, macho dad who punished Khaled for his vulnerability and the conservative uncle who took him under his wing.

Sheikh Jackson mostly takes place across two intertwining timelines: Khaled’s free-spirited adolescence and his adulthood, which has so far been defined by a self-flagellating, fire-and-brimstone brand of Islam. These two strands form a neat illustration of the binary options Khaled was led to believe he had to choose from — but, as the movie’s title hints, he might not have to choose at all, a revelation that doesn’t come easy because it flies in the face of everything he’s been taught. Free from the judgemental impulses of Western cinema when it comes to characters like Khaled, Sheikh Jackson is both an introspective portrait of the universal struggle of defining one’s own identity and a refreshingly nuanced look at how that experience might play out in the modern Arab world.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahmed Al Fishawy, Ahmed Malek, Amina Khalil, Basma, Bassma, Dorra, Hazem Ehab, Ibrahim Farah, Maged El Kedwany, Mahmoud Al Bezzawy, Mahmoud Gomaa, Omar Ayman, Salma Abu Deif, Yasmin Raeis, Yasmine Raeis, حازم إيهاب, محمود البزاوي

Director: Amr Salama

, 2014

Theeb is set in the Hejaz (now part of Saudi Arabia) on the eve of the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1916 — but you don’t need to be clued up on its historical backdrop, because its protagonist isn’t. Jacir Eid plays the titular adolescent (the name meaning “wolf”), the youngest son of a now-dead Bedouin leader. When his older brother Hussein (Hussein Al-Sweilhiyeen) is called upon to help guide a suspiciously tense British soldier (Jack Fox) to a well, Theeb disobeys an order to stay put and follows them into the unforgiving desert. Then, tragedy strikes in the middle of nowhere, throwing him into an uneasy alliance with an enemy, without whom he won't survive the treacherous journey home.

Era-ending political machinations are unfolding all around him, but Theeb lends the film his childlike perspective so that it plays out more like the coming-of-age story of a young cub than a Lawrence of Arabia-style epic. Even as it boldly subverts that classic, though, Theeb's cinematography mirrors the haunting, hostile beauty of David Lean’s film — making the desert feel as much a character as the boy. Deftly balancing a sense of earth-shattering personal stakes with one of looming historical portent, Theeb earned a well-deserved nomination at the 2016 Oscars.

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller

Actor: Hassan Mutlag, Hussein Salameh, Jacir Eid, Jack Fox, Marji Audeh

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

When he’s accepted into the prestigious Islamic university Al-Azhar, fisherman’s son Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) gets an eye-opening education — but not the kind he expected. A place associated with notions of purity is imagined as a hotbed of hypocrisy and corruption here, as naive young Adam finds himself unwittingly embroiled in a state plot to seize control of Al-Azhar (because, as one government official puts it, “We can’t accept having two pharaohs in the land”). Cairo Conspiracy's intricate plot confronts monsters in government and strips away religious leaders’ veneer of divinity as a reminder that they’re merely fallible men. What's more, the film grapples with the knotty mess of politics raging inside the institution’s walls in such a way that even its palatial courtyard feels claustrophobic. Rife with paranoia and subterfuge, Cairo Conspiracy feels utterly unique thanks to this skillful transposing of the shadowy machinations of courtly intrigue dramas and '70s paranoid thrillers into a very contemporary Egyptian setting.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Fares Fares, Jalal Altawil, Makram J. Khoury, Mehdi Dehbi, Mohammad Bakri, Sherwan Haji, Tawfeek Barhom

Director: Tarik Saleh

, 2013

Ask yourself how many Palestinian movies you have seen before. You will want to give this smart and twisty Academy Award nominee by Golden Globe winning director Hany Abu-Assad a chance to change your answer. Omar, a Palestinian baker, climbs the West Bank Wall to see his lover, Nadia, whom he wants to marry. When Israeli soldiers catch and humiliate him, he gets implicated in the shooting of an Israeli soldier, and eventually gets arrested and faces an extremely lengthy sentence. Later, his captors’ motives and his own get tangled up in politics, friendship, trust, and love. Omar is a highly realistic, compelling crime drama you don’t want to miss.

Genre: Drama, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Adam Bakri, Adi Krayem, Doraid Liddawi, Eyad Hourani, Leem Lubany, Samer Bisharat, Waleed Zuaiter, Walid Abed Elsalam

Director: Hany Abu-Assad

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated