Her husband, Khaled Mouzanar, who doubles as her producer and film composer, has said that in addition to mortgaging their house they had to delay payments for their son’s school in order to fund the film. (He told me that he was eventually able to secure funds from local investors.)
Filmmakers across the Middle East also continue to face censorship or have to practice self-censorship. In 2017, the Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri, whose fourth film, “The Insult,” was nominated for best foreign language film last year, was briefly detained upon his return to Lebanon to promote his film there and forced to answer accusations of treason in front of a military court (he was cleared). His earlier film, 2012’s “The Attack,” which was filmed partly in Israel, defying Lebanese laws that prohibit travel to that country, had caused an outcry. It was banned in Lebanon and in several Arab countries and he had to relocate to Paris.
In a way, things have improved since Mr. Doueiri’s debut film, “West Beirut,” in 1998, when local funding was even more scarce, and even since Ms. Labaki’s first film, “Caramel,” a charming, lighthearted dramedy that premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Doueiri’s “The Insult” was largely funded by private Lebanese investors. Several Arab cinephiles are doing what they can to bolster Arab cinema and to help build Arab audience appreciation for local films. According to Rasha Salti, who selects Arab films for some of the leading international film festivals, “The Oscar run this year may not mark an ‘apotheosis’ per se, but rather an affirmation of the maturity of Arab cinema.”
Ms. Labaki, Mr. Doueiri, Mr. Abu-Assad, and Naji Abu Nowar, the director of “Theeb,” are but a few of the Arab filmmakers whose work reflects the contemporary Middle East, with themes that are as global as they are local.
“Capernaum,” which earned the director a 15-minute standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes last year, was beaten out by Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” at the Oscars. Like the Cuarón film, “Capernaum” addresses the plight of female laborers. After Zain, the sharp-witted young protagonist (who in real life was a Syrian refugee in Lebanon but who, with Ms Labaki’s help, has since been relocated with his family to Europe), runs away from home, he befriends Rahil, an Ethiopian migrant worker and mother of a baby boy. Intense and deeply moving, “Capernaum” is cinema at its most vital and its most potent.
Quality films that address overlooked issues can be successful when given the chance to be seen widely. With better financial support and fewer restraints, Arab films from the Middle East could very well be nominated for Oscars every year. And who knows — maybe soon one will actually win.
Nana Asfour is an editor in The New York Times Opinion section.
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