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Here at the Arab Film Festival, we pride ourselves on being a strong resource for learning about and experiencing Arab film and cinema. We collected some resources to help you continue to expand your knowledge and appreciation of Arab cinema. Hopefully all of this will leave you excited to watch some amazing Arab films with us at the 2016 festival in October!

Film still from West Beirut (1998)

What makes a film “Arab”? 

When we talk about Arab film we are generally referring to films made by Arab filmmakers. These films also often depict Arab stories. Some people are confused by the word “Arab,” let’s first define it. The term itself refers to a group of people who speak Arabic as their first language and are also united by shared history and culture. There are 22 countries that are considered part of the Arab world: Algeria, Djibouti, Jordan, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Mauritania, Comoros, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Qatar, Somalia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. As “Arab” does not refer to one specific country or even one exact culture, it is important to note that it does not refer to a specific religion either. Arab and Muslim are not synonymous or interchangeable. Though a large portion of Arabs are Muslim, there are predominant Christian, Jewish and other religious communities in the Arab world as well.

Arab Film Festival Arab world map

Map courtesy of

Why is it important to pay attention to Arab film?

It’s always important to support art and expression in its various forms in cultures all over the world. These days it is particularly important for those living in Western countries, such as the United States, to be exposed to Arab stories in order to better understand Arab culture, as well as to be exposed to alternatives to the predominantly negative stereotypes of Arabs commonly shown in mass media. Dr. Jack Shaheen, the author of numerous books about the depiction of Arabs in American pop culture, described it best: “What is an Arab? In countless films, Hollywood alleges the answer: Arabs are brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits, and abusers of women.” By watching films by and about Arabs, we hope to counteract these, sometimes internalized, stereotypes.

Film still from The Sheik (1921)

A Brief History of Arab Cinema

Film was an invention of the West that began in the late 19th century. At the time, much of the Middle East belonged to European countries. These countries introduced film to the Arab world but production in these areas was long hampered due to the market being flooded with European product. Cinema was able to flourish early on in Northern Africa, though, specifically in Egypt and Algeria, where films by the Lumiere brothers were first screened in 1896. This was quickly followed by the construction of a number of cinematographes that held regular film screenings. Slowly, though unsteadily, the medium began to spread throughout the Arab world. Some countries were not very accepting of film for a long time, (cinema was not accepted in Saudi Arabia until the 1960’s and 70’s,) or the government held tight control over production. Egypt has developed the strongest industry in the Middle East, with the production of over 2,500 feature films. For a long time film production in the Arab world consisted of Western countries filming in Arab countries or in collaboration with Arab people. Native-made feature films only started to become a regular occurrence in the late 1920’s, with films like Syria’s The Innocent Accused and Egypt’s Layla. Independence also played a factor in local filmmaking. Many countries saw a sharp spike in film production after they gained independence, even countries that did little to fight off European control. Film has also been a strong tool of expression and resistance in Arab culture, which continues to be a common theme in today’s films. The history of Arab film, despite it’s delayed onset, is extremely rich.

Movie poster of Egyptian film Berlanti (1944)

Resources to Watch Arab Films

After all of this educational talk about Arab cinema, you must be ready to watch some films! While we hope you’ll join us for the Arab Film Festival in October, as well as at our screenings throughout the year, there are many other resources for you to explore Arab films in the meantime. Please note that these resources are somewhat limited to the United States and some parts of Canada.

Where to watch Arab films online

  • is one of our favorite resources for streaming Arab films, and a partner of the festival. With a membership, you can not only watch films but also support filmmakers on their new projects. Kind of like Kickstarter meets Netflix.
  • Speaking of Netflix, the popular streaming site does have a solid selection of Arab films. Head over to their “International” section and select sub-genre “Middle Eastern Movies”.
  • Fandor is a streaming site that specializes in independent and classic films. They also have a selection of movies from the Middle East within their International section. They boast selections from Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan.
  • For those of you who don’t need English subtitles, (or websites in English for that matter,) you can stream a selection of Arab films from Aflam1 or SotwesooraHD.


Arab film series and regular screenings

  • ANA Contemporary Arab Cinema is an annual film series showcasing 12 films by Arab directors. The series is curated by Lina Matta, channel manager at MBC 2, MBC 4 and MBC Max in Dubai. The series takes place in September at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY.
  • Alwan for the Arts is a New York based organization that promotes the cultures of the Middle East in the New York and tri-state metropolitan area. They host a number of cultural events and classes, including regular screenings of Middle Eastern movies.
  • We encourage you to also check out your local colleges, museums, theaters or Arab cultural organizations for screenings of Arab films!


Major Festivals where you can discover Arab films


Film still from Theeb (2014)

Resources to Learn More

These are only a few of the resources available worldwide, and delve into the history of Arab cinema, current Arab film, as well as the representation of Arabs in Western media.


  • Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity by Viola Shafik
  • Film in the Middle East and North Africa: Creative Dissidence by Josef Gugler
  • Ten Arab Filmmakers: Political Dissent and Social Critique by Josef Gugler
  • Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers by Rebecca Hillauer
  • Hanan al-Cinema: Affections for the Moving Image by Laura U. Marks
  • Filming the Modern Middle East: Politics in the Cinemas of Hollywood and the Arab World by Lina Khatib
  • Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies People by Dr. Jack Shaheen
  • A is for Arab: Archiving Stereotypes in US Popular Culture by Dr. Jack Shaheen



  • Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies People directed by Sut Jhally


Websites/Online Resources

Film still from Caramel (2007)

Do you know about any more festivals, streaming sites or resources you would like to add? Comment below!

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