5 Films at Sundance That Reveal What Life Is Like in the Middle East Now

This slate of films goes beyond headlines to bring unknown and often complex stories to the screen.

From the film ‘The Land of the Enlightened.’ (Photo: ‘The Land of the Enlightened’/Facebook)

Jan 30, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

Filmmaking is its own challenge, and a handful of films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival have undertaken the formidable task of telling stories from the conflict and turmoil of the Middle East.

Belgian filmmaker Pieter-Jan de Pue spent seven years making The Land of the Enlightened, a genre-bending film that recounts the story of a gang of Afghan children who dig up Soviet land mines and sell them to children working in mines excavating semiprecious stones. The feature-length film is being dubbed a “creative documentary” in the sense that scenes were staged but no actors were used to shoot the true story.

As military forces who have tried to control Afghanistan for decades can attest, the rugged terrain and thin infrastructure meant de Pue traveled by foot, horse, motorcycle, and any other means to find stories he wanted to tell. Many of the shots posed logistical and physical challenges, requiring the filmmaker to climb mountains 15,000 feet high.

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“We had to travel for two weeks with a caravan of camels, horses, and donkeys with everything that we needed—fuel, food for two months for 30 people, water, generators. It was like a huge expedition for each shoot,” de Pue said in a phone interview with TakePart.

The result is a beautifully shot film that captures the maturity of children who have to grow up fast because of the political turmoil in their homeland.

“Kids picking up mines, collecting scrap metal, dealing with opium, dealing with arms trafficking—it’s such a familiar thing in Afghanistan,” de Pue said. “For us in the West, it’s shocking. But this is a country that has dealt with war for 35 years, so it’s very familiar.”

Here are some of the other films from this year’s Sundance that bring unknown and often complex stories from the Middle East and Arab world to the forefront:

The Settlers

Shimon Dotan, an Israeli documentary filmmaker and professor who lives in New York City, made The Settlers to distinguish between two different types of communities in the West Bank: those who believe in the religious link between the land and the redemption of Israel, and those who are secular but persuaded by Israeli politics.

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The film provides a historical background on this complex geopolitical issue while engaging audiences with slices of life in the West Bank. See a trailer here.

A Flag Without a Country

The “docufiction,” as it’s described, traces the story of two people from Kurdistan, singer Helly Luv and pilot Nariman Anwar. Each is looking to recruit children, one for his flying school and the other for a music video. They find those children amid Syrian refugees who end up in Kurdistan thanks to the ongoing conflict with the Islamic State.

The film is written, edited, and produced by Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian filmmaker of Kurdish descent.

Jim: The James Foley Story

Directed by Brian Oakes, a childhood friend of slain photojournalist James Foley, this documentary recounts the work and life of the American before he was killed by the Islamic State in 2014. With action-packed scenes that take audiences to the front lines of the conflict in Syria, the film illustrates the grim realities for war correspondents.

Sand Storm

After spending a decade with Bedouin women, Israeli filmmaker Elite Zexer dives into Bedouin culture in her debut feature, examining the social stigmas these women face and how they try to evolve in a modern world. The two female leads struggle with the rules of love and marriage in their communities. One is coping with her husband’s second marriage, the other a taboo affair with a boy from college.