A look at movies was prompted by the ignominious release to DVD in April of Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog's ever-promised bio of Gertrude Bell. The film had no Canada and USA cinema release to speak of; it was said to be heavily edited after its 2015 film festival debut and never gained traction among critics. As one reviewer put it:
I suspect, alas, that despite the presence of big names upon which the film could easily be sold, no one knew how to market a movie about a historical female figure, Gertrude Bell, who is all but unknown to mainstream moviegoers even though she is almost singlehandedly responsible for the political shape of the Middle East today; she even foresaw the problems that would arise, the ones the world is trying to cope with today.It’s difficult not to feel like the way the industry has treated Queen of the Desert is just continuing the outrageous erasure of Bell from pop-culture consciousness.
I have written about Bell a few times (e.g. but the best biography is Queen of the Desert by Janet Wallach.
To offset my deep disappointment, how about some movies that include ... deserts. Sometimes camels. Middle East cultures. Movies with people in love, in conflict, in weakness and strength ... in universal human conditions. I've had opportunity to see the following. The country in brackets is the setting of the story, not necessarily where it was filmed or the director's nationality. Most are unknowns to western eyes, foreign films found in out-of-the-way cinemas.
Sand Storm (Israel) 2016
A traditional Bedouin wife of today struggles with her husband's choosing a second wife while her daughter breaks with custom to choose her own lover. A favourite at many film festivals and Israel's Academy Award nominee. Powerful!
Theeb (Jordan) 2016
Another best foreign-language film nomination, difficult to find in theatres (YouTube offers no subtitles without subscribing to an online service). A young boy during the Arab Revolt of 1917 expands his horizons while guiding a British officer.
Timbuktu (Mali) 2014
Academy Award nomination for foreign language film. Daesh* invades the simple life of villagers in the remote desert, creating intimidation and oppression. Sobering, sad.
* Called ISIS in the west, the pejorative term is widely applied to the fanatics and assassins by those locally affected; Daesh deliberately does not confer "state" or authoritative status to the extremists.
Desert Dancer (Iran) 2014
Lyrical adaptation of a true story in a country that bans dancing; a young man persists in teaching himself, gathering a group of like-minded friends to study forbidden videos, practising secretly, performing in the desert.
A Separation (Iran) 2011
Winner of Golden Globe award and Oscar for best foreign language film. Family stresses: caregiving for a parent v. changing countries for a child's future.
Incendies (Lebanon) 2010
Canadian Denis Villeneuve directed this acclaimed Oscar nominee. A mother's dying instructions send her adult twins to discover their surprising family history in Lebanon's troubled civil war past.
The Band's Visit (Israel) 2007
Hugely well-rated on Rotten Tomatoes, an Egyptian police band, invited to entertain in Israel, ends up stranded in a remote village. Delightfully moving, full of touching characters and humour.
To be continued ...
© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman