n January 2017, the Arab Cinema Center (ACC) in Egypt announced it would launch the Critics Awards at the highly respected Cannes Film Festival. The proceedings, which took place this week, were the end-result of the deliberations of a 24-member strong jury process of film critics, representing 15 countries, nine of them Arab. This is the first time a pan-Arab award—and one exclusively for Arab cinema, no less—has been given-out at a platform this prestigious.
To qualify, films had to debut at international film festivals outside the Arab world, be in part or whole produced by an Arab company, and be of feature film length.
A total of nine films made the final cut. They hailed from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia, and were nominated in Best Film, Best Director, Best Writer, Best Actress, and Best Actor categories.
Egyptian director Mohamed Diab won the Best Director and Best Writer awards for Eshtebak (“Clash”)—which had run at last year’s Cannes Film Festival—beating-out Akher Ayam el-Medina (“In the Last Days of the City”; directed by Tamer El Said) and Hedi (directed by Mohamed Ben Attia). Eshtebak is set in the aftermath the June 2013 coup d’état which overthrew then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. It received critical acclaim; the Evening Standard described it as “a tiny movie [that] feels like a big deal.” Lavish praise followed from Time Out, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and The Times.
More acclaim came from actor Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies, Saving Private Ryan), who said, “You simply must [see it]. The film will break your heart, but enlighten all.”
Hedi, from Tunisia, is about a listless, muted man who meets Rim, a free spirit who kindles in him a desire for escape from Tunisia’s traditional social dynamics. Variety called the film an “adept and absorbing drama.”
Best Actor went to Tunisian actor Majd Mastoura, for Hedi. His fellow nominees were Ahmed Maher, from Jordan, for his role in Blessed Benefit, and Saudi Arabia’s Hisham Fageeh, for Barakah Meets Barakah. Mastoura won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at last year’s Berlin Film Festival for the same role.
The Best Actress Award went to Egyptian actress Heba Ali in Akhdar Yabes (“Withered Green”), who beat-out Sarah Hannachi, nominated for the Tunisian film Foreign Body, and Lebanese actress Julia Kassar, for Rabih.
The Arab countries represented on the jury were Lebanon, Egypt, the UAE, Palestine, Iraq, Morocco, Kuwait, Tunisia, and Algeria. France, Italy, the USA, the UK, Croatia, and Sweden made-up the rest. The jury had previously consisted of 26 members, but two of these—Egypt’s Samir Farid and Palestine’s Bashar Ibrahim—passed away before the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
The Critics Awards are part of the ACC’s efforts to promote Arab cinema.