8 Best Middle-Eastern Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors
Echoing Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesmen, Oscar-winning writer-director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, About Elly) tells the story of a loving middle-class couple who live in Tehran, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who are forced to move out of their apartment. After arriving at their new place, violence erupts, upending their life and straining their previously happy relationship. Farhadi does what he does best here, delivering simmering tension, complex realism, and unaltered emotion. Originally titled Forushande, every scene of The Salesman is a privileged look for Western viewers into Iran's collective consciousness. And even with all that aside, the film still stands out as an extraordinary drama with a tense plot and outstanding performances across the board. Another incredible addition to Farhadi's first-class filmography.

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Actor: Babak Karimi, Ehteram Boroumand, Emad Emami, Erfan Barzin, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Maral Bani Adam, Mehdi Koushki, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Pirzadeh, Sahra Asadollahe, Sam Valipour, Shahab Hosseini, Shirin Aghakashi, Tarane Alidousti, Taraneh Alidoosti

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Rating: PG-13

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

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

, 2012

Wadjda is a smart, spirited 10-year-old girl who wants nothing more than to own her own bike, something that is frowned upon in the Saudi Arabian suburb where she lives. While it’s not technically illegal for women to own bikes, it is thought of as something that is “dangerous to a girl’s virtue,” and it’s worth noting that this is a society where women are also not allowed to drive their own cars. Wadjda devises numerous schemes to earn enough money to buy a bike (selling bracelets, making mixes of Western pop songs, delivering clandestine messages between men and women), before getting caught by the headmistress at her school. It is then that Wadjda hits on the ultimate money-making scheme: there is to be a Koran-reciting contest at her school with a hefty cash prize, and she’s determined to win. There is a subplot involving a growing rift between Wadjda’s parents; while there is clearly a lot of love between both parties, it becomes increasingly clear that her father may be leaving her mother for another woman who could potentially bear him a son (a common practice). This subplot is handled with respect and little judgement though, as it is simply the way things work in this culture. Yet, as Wadjda is coming-of-age and learning about the limitations placed on her as a girl, she is obviously negotiating ingenious ways of pushing back against those limitations. The film is subtle and humane in how it handles the slowly changing cultural and gender dynamics in a traditionally conservative, patriarchal society. It wouldn’t work without a strong central performance from first-time actor Waad Mohammed though -- she is never less than believable as a clever, determined and joyful 10-year-old, and her journey towards adulthood is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Ahd, Alanoud Sajini, Dana Abdullilah, Haifaa Al-Mansour, Rafa Al Sanea, Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf, Waad Mohammed

Director: Haifaa al-Mansour

Rating: PG