Arabs at the Oscars: Looking Back on a Relentless 62-Year Journey

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Those of us on this side of the world woke up to news of Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue at the 90th annual Academy Awards, Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech for best actress in a leading role, and Jordan Peele’s win in the original screenplay category for Get Out. It is not unusual for people to indulge in a post Oscar dissection of everything that was said, done and worn at this renowned event.

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At the ceremony, the Arab world was represented in the Foreign Film category with Lebanon’s The Insult, making it the country’s first nomination. Unfortunately, it lost to Chile’s A Fantastic Woman, a story chronicling the struggle of a trans-woman being accused of involvement in her partner’s death. Additionally, in the documentary category one of the nominees was Last Men in Aleppo from Syria, a heartbreaking documentary about loss, danger and heroism in the midst of the country’s raging civil war.

To voice opinions or list nominees and winners would be a redundant participation in the media’s regurgitation of last night’s events. However, the Foreign Film category is underrated compared to the rest; we’re talking about a category that has seen the likes of Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Ang Lee (The Life of Pi) make the shift from nominee for best foreign film, to nominee for best director or best picture at the Oscars. An elusive and enticing category to the nations of the world. An opportunity for countries that are not English speaking to be hopeful that they may make it to center stage, and in front of millions of viewers accept an award that bolsters their nation’s cultural significance to the forefront of the global conversation.

While the first Oscars were held in 1929, it was not until 1947 that an Oscar was awarded to a foreign film. From 1947 to 1955, it was an honorary Oscar, meaning that there were no nominations, no competition. One film was just awarded an Oscar and it had to have been released in the U.S. That being said, it wasn’t a necessary event at the awards; in 1953 there was no award dedicated to a foreign film.

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In 1956, the academy decided to make the Foreign Film category a definine one like the rest. To that end, 68 awards have been handed out in that category since 1947; 56 to European films, six to Asian films, three to films from the Americas, and three to African films.

Since the inception of the category, the Arab world has submitted over 100 films to the Academy for consideration, with just under 10 being accepted and nominated, five of which are Algerian. In fact, Algeria has the only winning film from the Arab world, Z (1969) which does not tell an Algerian story, rather tells the story of a prominent leftist Greek activist whose death incites a series of political events that are detrimental for those in power. The film’s cast is predominantly French, with a few Greek actors, and the director himself Greek-French. The film is a collaboration between French and Algerian production teams, and it should be noted that the country with the highest number of nominated films (39) is France, Algeria’s former colonizer.

Similarly, the largest participant of submissions to the academy from the Arab region, with 32 submissions to the category of Best Foreign Film, is Egypt. Films such as Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station and Alexandria Again and Forever among other works by Chahine were submitted. Marawan Hamed’s controversial The Yacoubian Building was submitted as well, gernering a lot of talk in Egypt upon its submission due to Mohamed Imam’s character as a student turned away from the police academy to be embraced into extreme and militant Islamism, as well as Khaled el Sawy’s character, an editor and a man fairly open about being gay. The most recent nomination is Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson, which chronicles the life of an Islamic cleric, infatuated since childhood with Michael Jackson, only to have his life disoriented upon the singer’s death. Unfortunately, Egypt has not made it past the final selection stage as of yet, leaving the nation at zero nominations.

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For those who see this as a disappointment, it is not. Arab films and Arab filmmakers have been making a steadily regular appearance at the Oscars in the past years. With films such as Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013), both submitted and nominated by Palestine, as well as Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb (2015) nominated on behalf of Jordan, and of course, last night’s nomination of Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult (2017), representing Lebanon, filmmakers are rising from the Arab world; it is only a matter of time.

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