Hot Docs Festival: Middle Eastern Films Get Spotlight Amid Israel-Hamas War

The impact of the Israel-Hamas war covered extensively by the world media and saturating social media platforms has Middle Eastern directors and their films suddenly in the spotlight on the international film festival circuit.

At Hot Docs, Canada’s largest documentary festival that kicks into gear this weekend, Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly has brought his documentary Life is Beautiful to Toronto for a North American premiere. The film follows his exile to Norway caused by an earlier 2014 regional conflict and thwarted efforts to get back to his family in Gaza.

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“The film has unfortunately become more relevant to what’s going on these days. I was hoping to release the film in a more peaceful situation,” Jabaly tells The Hollywood Reporter. The irony is his documentary debuted at the IDFA Festival in Amsterdam in November 2023, soon after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel sparked a wider Israel-Gaza conflict that has claimed the lives of his close family and friends back home.

Jabaly pointed to cinematographer Abood Saymah, who worked on Life is Beautiful, losing his life during the current Israel-Gaza conflict. “He was killed while waiting for food aid at one of the checkpoints where people were targeted. He lost his life, and I still can’t believe that he’s not there, and he’s not with us,” the director reveals.

Afghanistan director Roya Sadat is getting a world premiere at Hot Docs this weekend for The Sharp End of Peace, her documentary about four Afghan women fighting for social justice and political freedoms amid peace talks with the Taliban before the United States and coalition troops withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 2021.

“This [documentary] is coming out at a critical moment, and it’s really important that people watch it around the world, and I hope other festivals also screen this film,” Sadat tells THR. The filmmaker also expresses frustration that the plight of oppressed women in Afghanistan fell off the global media’s radar after the Taliban came to power in 2021.

“The Taliban is not the reality of Afghanistan, and the Afghan people are not represented well in the United States, only as September 11 (2001) and the Taliban. I hope with this film people understand more about Afghan women,” Sadat insists.

Directors Aeyliya Husain and Amie Williams have another documentary about Afghan women at Hot Docs: An Unfinished Journey, which is getting a North American bow in Toronto after world premiering at FIFDH Geneva. The film follows four influential women in Afghanistan — three former Members of Parliament and a journalist — forced to flee that war-torn country once the Taliban took over and the plight of women remaining in the country was put in even greater peril.

As with Jalaby, the four Afghan women in exile in the documentary appear forlorn over being separated from their families and having to watch the destruction of their homelands from afar. “What’s happening to Afghan women is still very topical as it’s kind of been pushed aside because of the Gaza conflict and that’s dangerous,” Husain tells THR.

She adds, “Because people turn their attention away, the rulers of that country like the Taliban decide, well, people aren’t paying attention to us now, so we can do whatever we want.”

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