The History of West and Central Asian Cinema
The film industries of West and Central Asia – also referred to as the Middle Eastern film industry – are largely dominated by the sizeable motion picture industry of Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. Most of the countries in the region are primarily Islamic, which includes adherence to the Qur’an’s Shari’a law. Some countries are more liberal in nature than others, with Turkey and Lebanon leading the way to a more Western way of thinking, while others, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen strictly adhere to the Shari’a law.
In accordance with the Shari’a law, cinema is deemed un-Islamic. The law prohibits gender mixing, listening to music, and the public exposure of women, making it difficult for film to find a place within society. Recently, however, even Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on cinema, slowly allowing the nation’s film industry to start grinding its gears.
Many films produced in the Middle East tackle the region’s social and political struggles, reflecting on social pressure, the influence of Communism, armed conflicts, and the dark side of Islam and its strict Shari’a law.
Table of Contents
Pick a Country
The Best Films from West & Central Asia
It’s time to journey eastwards into West Asia, taking a cultural trip in Turkey, crossing the aspiring nation of Georgia into rural Azerbaijan, from where we move into the Middle East to explore the booming film industry of Lebanon and examine the politically charged relations between Israel and Palestine.
Heading further into the heart of the Middle East, we traverse the desolate deserts of Jordan on our way to Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula, before crossing war-torn Iraq and prosperous Iran on our way to the steppes of Kazakhstan.
Directed by: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015.
The Turkish film industry goes by the name Yeşilçam, meaning ‘the Green Pine’. As in many other countries around the world, the first movie projected in Turkey – then part of the Ottoman Empire – was a film by the Lumière Brothers in Istanbul in 1896. Before World War II, the Ottoman film industry (and after 1923, the Turkish film industry) followed the same path as many of Europe’s small film industries: local production was low and import numbers were high. After the war, however, local production increased drastically, leading to what is now known as the ‘Yeşilçam era’.
Similar to Nigeria, the dawn of TV and home video caused a decline in ticket sales in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s, lowering the number of films produced to around 10-15 per year. The decline wasn’t halted until the cinematic boom of the 1990s, which revitalized many of Europe’s national film industries. Over the course of six decades, more than two dozen Turkish films were submitted for the Academy Awards, but none was ever nominated. Turkish films are known for their diversity: from historical epics such as Fetih 1453 (2012) and crime dramas such as The Bandit (1996), there is no genre the Turkish film industry doesn’t tackle.
One of Turkey’s most famous films was the political drama Yol (1982), which caused much controversy in Turkey due to its reflection on the 1980 coup d’état and the fate of the country’s Kurdish minority. In 21th century Turkey, Turkish filmmakers continue to address controversial topics, such as in Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s drama Mustang (2015).
Mustang is set in a remote Turkish village and depicts the lives of five young orphaned sisters growing up in a conservative society. The film excels in showing the constant sexual projection on women within the country’s traditional patriarchal system. Mustang’s storyline extends to a great part of the Middle East, where anything a woman does, says or shows can be seen as sexually provocative, and should, therefore, according to the system, be repressed.
When five orphan sisters living in northern Turkey are seen playing with a couple of boys on the beach, their conservative guardians confine them to their house, slowly transforming their family home into a prison.
Find Mustang on Amazon.com.
Georgia: In Bloom
Directed by: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß, 2013.
In the early 20th century, Georgian cinema developed strongly under the tutelage of the Soviet Union, which had invaded the country in 1921. Noted for its unique sense of cinematography, the Georgian film industry thrived for several decades. When Georgia declared its independence in 1991, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country’s film output struggled to continue its winning streak. Though the 1990s saw Georgia’s first and only Academy Award nomination with A Chef in Love (1996), it took a while before the country’s film industry resurged.
Georgia’s lush, mountainous landscape and its incredibly friendly population – the country hosts a nationwide ridesharing system through which strangers commute on a daily basis – is currently boosting the country’s tourism industry, opening up new opportunities for the nation’s national film industry. The country’s efforts to join both the European Union and NATO strengthened its relations with Europe, leading to several strong European co-productions. One of Georgia’s most captivating films, co-produced with France, is 13 Tzameti (2005), written and directed by Georgian director Géla Babluani.
While Babluani’s suspenseful film focuses on the struggles of Georgian emigrants living in France, living in the director’s home country can be equally troublesome: directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß were internationally lauded for their co-production In Bloom (original title: Grzeli Nateli Dgeebi, 2013). The film depicts the lives of two teenage girls living in Tbilisi in 1992, a year after the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. In Bloom borrows heavily from Eastern Europe’s modern cinematic output, in which storylines often center on the struggles brought on by (the fall of) communism.
Set in Tbilisi in 1992, fourteen-year-old best friends Eka and Natia enter adolescence, while coping with their turbulent family lives.
Find In Bloom on Amazon.com.
Directed by: Elchin Musaoglu, 2014.
As an oil-producing company, Azerbaijan has a long history of attracting foreigners. Soon after the Lumière brothers premiered their first motion pictures in Paris, the brother’s cinematograph showed up in Azerbaijan, starting off the Azerbaijani motion picture industry. Azerbaijan’s first film productions were short documentaries shot by Frenchman Alexandre Michon, who filmed everyday life in Baku. Many of the country’s first feature-length films were then directed by Soviet director Boris Svetlov, who was responsible for creating films such as In the Kingdom of Oil and Millions (1916) and The Cloth Peddler (1917) in the 1910s.
In April 1920, the Red Army invaded Azerbaijan, proclaiming the country as a Soviet Socialist Republic soon after. From then on, Azerbaijani cinema was dominated by a strict Soviet ideology. Like in all other former Soviet countries, cinema finally became independent again after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Azerbaijan continued the development of its national film industry and declared August 2nd to be an official holiday for filmmakers.
Between 2007 and 2017, Azerbaijan submitted no less than 7 films for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Unfortunately, this has not yet led to a nomination. One of the submitted films was director Elchin Musaoglu’s Nabat (2014), a drama set during the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial ethnic conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The film focuses on Nabat, an old woman taking care of her ailing husband. When enemy troops approach the village and the Azerbaijani Armed Forces evacuate the village, Nabat stays behind to continue nursing her husband, who is too old to travel.
When enemy troops slowly approach a poor Azerbaijani village, an elderly couple is left behind after the Azerbaijani Armed Forces order the villagers to leave.
Not available on Amazon.com.
Lebanon: Where Do We Go Now?
Directed by: Nadine Labaki, 2011.
Cinema in Lebanon has existed since the 1920s. Closely related to the film industries of France, Egypt, and Syria, Lebanon was able to produce a great amount of film during the 20th century, in comparison to its neighboring countries. After gaining independence from France in 1943, Lebanese cinema showed a narrative shift: local filmmakers began examining the country’s own culture and folklore, depicting life in the countryside and utilizing local music.
Lebanon’s geographic position as well as its relations to the West allowed the country to develop itself to become a liberal, open-minded nation. The country’s liberal nature – being considerably more open towards the West than other Arabic nations – is reflected in its cinematic output, often challenging old-fashioned ideas and concepts still held sacred in the Arabic world. Female director Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? (original title: Et maintenant on va où?, 2011) – co-produced with both France and Egypt, as well as Italy – depicts the absurdity of war as well as the spirit of the nation’s women.
Set in a tiny mountain village, Where Do We Go Now? displays a community in which Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together for many years. When a religious civil war outside their secluded community threatens to influence life within the village, the village’s women band together to prevent their husbands and sons from taking up arms against each other. Labaki approaches the dramatic storyline with a sharp sense of humor, crafting an entertaining, intelligent, and charming film challenging gender roles in time of war.
Having lived peacefully together for many years, relations between Christians and Muslims in a small Lebanese village are challenged by escalating conflicts between religious groups outside their community. To prevent tragedy, the village’s women band together to keep their men safe from harm.
Find Where Do We Go Now? on Amazon.com.
Israel: I Love You Rosa
Directed by: Moshé Mizrahi, 1972.
Before the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, very few Israeli films were made. After gaining independence, several privately funded films were released in the country. Then, from 1954 onwards, the Israeli film industry started receiving government funding. This led to steady growth in the number of films produced during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1964 director Ephraim Kishon’s Sallah (1964) became Israel’s first submission for the Academy Awards. Though the film received a nomination, it did not win. Since then, Israel has submitted a film for the Academy Awards almost every single year to date.
Israel’s 1972 submission I Love You Rosa (original title: Ani Ohev Otach Rosa, 1972) highlights one of Judaism’s most interesting aspects: the concept of Yibbum, or levirate marriage. In Jewish religious law, this meant that the brother of a deceased man was obliged to marry his brother’s widow in order to rebuild his brother’s family. I Love You Rosa takes place in the late 19th century and tells the story of Rosa, who visits her husband’s grave with her grandson Nissim, the namesake of her deceased husband.
The story’s main narrative shifts the story to the past, recounting how Rosa met her late husband and showing the struggles she went through after the passing of her first husband, Rafael. Left a childless widower, Rosa is soon promised to marry Rafael’s younger brother Nissim. Nissim, however, is still only 11 years old and deemed too young to marry. I Love You Rosa focusses on the changing relationship between Rosa and Nissim as they wait for Nissim to reach marriageable age. Israel has seen a gradual decline of Yibbum during the 20th century, but I Love You Rosa does a good job of reflecting on the social consequences of the ancient tradition.
When 20-year-old Rosa is left a childless widower, Jewish law expects her to marry her late husband’s younger brother once he reaches marriageable age.
Find I Love You Rosa on Amazon.com.
Palestine: Paradise Now
Directed by: Hany Abu-Assad, 2005.
Situated at a strategic geographical region between Africa, Arabia, and Syria, as well as being the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity, Palestine’s (former) region has a long, tumultuous history. Film production in Palestine is believed to have started around the 1930s with the arrival of several documentary films. Following the end of World War II, however, Palestine gradually began to lose its land to Israel. When in 1948 over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled the country during the Palestinian exodus, the nation’s sprouting film industry was equally ruined.
The status of 1948’s refugees and their families – and whether Israel will grant them the right to return to their former homes – is one of the main issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is still ongoing today. Nonetheless, most Palestinian films are produced with either Israeli (or European) support. An example of such a film is Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (original title: Al-Jannah Al’an, 2005). Co-produced by Palestine and Israel, with the help of several European countries, the film offers a glimpse into the lives of two Palestinian men recruited to carry out a suicide attack in Tel Aviv.
Paradise Now became the first out of two Palestinian films to be nominated for an Academy Award, after Divine Intervention (2002) failed to do so on the grounds that Palestine’s status as a sovereign state was still disputed. Paradise Now has been widely recognized as a contemporary political piece of art, humanizing the players caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Two Palestinian childhood friends from the West Bank are recruited for a suicide bombing attack in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Find Paradise Now on Amazon.com.
Directed by: Naji Abu Nowar, 2014.
The Arab state of Jordan lies between Israel and the Arabian Peninsula. The country has a 26-kilometer shoreline on the Red Sea, but is otherwise landlocked, consisting mostly of desert terrain. Though desolated and barren, the country’s deserts became a large asset to Jordan’s national film industry. Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert served as a filming location for films such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Hurt Locker (2008), Rogue One (2016), and Aladdin (2019), while also dubbing for Mars in Red Planet (2000) and The Martian (2015). After 1962’s release of Lawrence of Arabia, the country’s tourism industry equally grew.
Still, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Jordan started to boost its own film industry. In 2003, the government of Jordan formed the Royal Film Commission of Jordan. The commission was tasked with promoting Jordan as an important filming location for Middle Eastern productions. Since then, filmmakers from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine have traveled to Jordan to safely shoot their films. The RFC was equally tasked with encouraging national film directors to shoot their own productions. This led to the production of several Jordanian shorts and films, among them Captain Abu Raed (2007), Theeb (2014), and 3000 Nights (2015), Jordan’s first three submissions for the Academy Awards.
Naji Abu Nowar’s Theeb was the only one to receive a nomination. Set in the Wadi Rum desert – this time portraying itself rather than a foreign country or planet – during World War I, the film focuses on Theeb, the son of a Bedouin pilgrim guide. When Theeb’s brother Hussein is asked to guide a British officer and his guide through the desert, Theeb disobeys his orders not to follow them into the desert. Riding off on camelback, a perilous journey begins in which danger lies around every corner.
A young Bedouin boy living in the Ottoman province of Hejaz during World War I embarks on a perilous journey through the desert.
Find Theeb on Amazon.com.
Saudi Arabia: Wadjda
Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour, 2012.
Saudi Arabia, the largest country on the Arabian Peninsula, has a fairly small film industry. The country’s legal system is firmly based on the Islamic Shari’a law, derived from the Qur’an. Though up until the 1970s many movie theaters were still operating in Saudi Arabia, this came to an end when the government banned cinemas, deeming them un-Islamic. Only one theatre remained open: an IMAX theater showing educational films.
In the past decades, Saudi Arabia did manage to produce a small number of films on foreign soil, such as Izidore Musallam’s How are You? (2006), which was filmed in the United Arab Emirates and featured Saudi Arabia’s first actress Hind Mohammed. Despite being Saudi Arabia’s first big-budget film, How are You? was only shown to Saudi audiences through pay-per-view television. Wadjda (2012) took things one step further: not only was it directed by a woman, it was also the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia itself.
Wadjda is a wonderful little film detailing the efforts of a young Muslim girl aiming to collect enough money to buy herself a bicycle. Protagonist Wadjda lives in the Saudi capital Riyadh, which is placed under strict Shari’a law. Women are not allowed to reveal their skin, drive or speak in public (“a woman’s voice is her nakedness”). Whenever men are seen anywhere near Wadjda’s primary school, she and her friends are forced to go play inside. Growing tired of living up to the rules of the adult world, Wadjda hopes to break at least some of her community’s social rules by enjoying the pleasure of riding a bike – just another one of the many things a woman shouldn’t be doing.
10-year-old Wadjda, an enterprising Saudi girl, hopes to raise enough money to buy herself a beautiful green bicycle to race her friend Abdullah.
Find Wadjda on Amazon.com.
Iraq: My Sweet Pepper Land
Directed by: Hiner Saleem, 2013.
Before World War I, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the British came out victorious during the Mesopotamian Campaign, the empire was divided up, not taking into account the different ethnic and religious groups living in the country when drawing up the region’s new borders. This caused a particularly difficult situation for the Kurds and Christians living in the north of primarily Islamic Iraq. Meanwhile, the Iraqi film industry started taking shape. After World War II, Iraq produced a series of Indian-style musical romances set in Iraq’s rural villages with the support of British and French production companies.
When King Faisal II was overthrown in 1958, the new government started using cinema as a tool for propaganda. In the same period, conflict broke out between the Iraqi government and the Kurds. Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in 1979 subsequently embedded the country in war. During his reign, Iraq invaded Iran and Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War as displayed in British director Mick Jackson’s Live from Baghdad (2002). Saddam’s war drained national resources and crippled the nation’s budding film industry, though in 1980 Iraq did release the propaganda film Long Days (2018), glorifying Hussein’s role as a revolutionary.
Due to the ongoing wars fought in Iraq – from the U.N.’s invasion to the civil war – very few films were produced in the country. The Iraqi-film My Sweet Pepper Land (2013) was thus co-produced by France and Germany, helping Iraq in making the country’s struggles known to the world.
Filmed in Iraqi Kurdistan, the film details the attempts of Kurdish patriot Baran to govern a small village on the border of Iraq with Turkey and Iran. In the village, Baran is confronted by Aziz Aga, a corrupt tribal chief controlling the area. Meanwhile, Govend, a young school teacher from Baghdad, returns to the village aiming to educate its children in spite of the ongoing armed conflict in the region. My Sweet Pepper Land sheds light on the desperate situation at the Kurdish Iraqi border, where, ever since the British sliced up the Empire, regional disputes have plagued the lands.
War hero Baran is sent to the border of Iraqi Kurdistan to govern a small village ruled by a corrupt chief, while a young woman returns to the same village to re-open the local school.
Find My Sweet Pepper Land on Amazon.com.
Iran: The Past
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi, 2013.
The first filmmaker from Iran – then also known as Persia – was Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi, the royal photographer of the Shah of Persia. On the order of his king, Akkas Bashi obtained a camera in Paris in 1900 to film the Shah’s visit to Europe. The country’s first film school was established in the 1920s, leading to steady growth in productions. By the 1960s, Persia was already producing up to 25 films per year, making the nation’s industry one of the largest in the region.
The 1979 revolution saw the transformation of the Persian monarchy into the Islamic Republic of Iran, leading to increased censorship within the nation’s film industry. To promote its domestic films abroad, censorships eased after 1987, leading to a new wave of Iranian films. From the 1990s onwards, Iran submitted a film for the Academy Award almost every year, including the wonderful, good-natured drama Children of Heaven (1997). Producing around 200 films annually, the Iranian box office is now dominated by domestic films.
Within five years time, prolific Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film twice with A Separation (2011) and The Salesman (2016). With his films, Farhadi sheds light on the emotional struggles within everyday life in modern-day Iran. Beautifully written, the director’s distinctive way of storytelling is felt throughout all of his movies.
The Past (original title: Le Passé, or: Gozašte, 2013) was released in between Farhadi’s two Academy Award-winning films. Like most of Farhadi’s movies, The Past can perhaps best be compared to an onion: every scene peels back another layer of the onion, revealing more details about the characters and their backgrounds, until, in the end, there’s nothing left for them to hide. By slowly allowing his audience to dive deeper into the sorrows of his characters, Farhadi allows viewers to become equally consumed by their emotions.
Unlike his other films, The Past received only limited international coverage. Yet, as a skillfully composed art film and a prime example of modern Iranian cinema, The Past deserves all the attention it can get.
The Past tells the story of Ahmad, an Iranian man, who – after an absence of four years – returns to France to finalize his divorce with his wife Marie. During his time abroad, Marie became romantically involved with Samir, whose wife resides in a coma.
Find The Past on Amazon.com.
Directed by: Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008.
Though claimed to have “placed Kazakhstan on the map” by Kazakh ambassador Erlan Idrissov, the Sacha Baron Cohen-produced mockumentary Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) is in no way related to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan. Filmed under controversial circumstances in the heart of Romania, featuring Romani people interacting with a British comedian, Borat merely used Kazakhstan as its background setting. Though the Kazakh film industry had no involvement in what became the most famous film “featuring” their country, the industry itself has produced a number of films over the course of time.
The Kazakh film industry finds its origins in the production of documentaries in Almaty, the former Kazakh capital previously known as Alma-Ata. Being part of the Soviet Union until December 1991, Kazakhstan’s own film industry is relatively young. However, due to the threat of war in Moscow and Leningrad during World War II, the main Soviet film studios Mosfilm and Lenfilm both relocated to Alma-Ata to safely produce films.
During the post-war period, Alma-Ata further grew its (own) cinematic landscape, operating a fully established film industry once independence dawned. Due to Kazakh cinemas preference to rely on Hollywood films for its income, Kazakhstan’s own cinematic output struggled to find its place after the declaration of independence. In response, Kazakhstan produced several big-budget films to challenge Hollywood’s steady stream of blockbusters; among them, the Academy Award-nominated Mongolian co-production Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007).
While small films such Tulpan (2008) fared well in Europe, at home they were largely overlooked. Tulpan was the country’s fourth submission to the Academy Awards. Though it didn’t manage to receive a nomination, it did win the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Film. Tulpan takes a look at the harsh life of a small family living on the remote Kazakh steppe. Returning home after being discharged from the Russian Navy, Asa dreams of becoming a herdsman and marrying his neighbor’s daughter Tulpan.
After returning home from a stint in the navy, Asa returns to the draught of the Kazakh steppe, where he hopes to lead a simple life as a shepherd.
Find Tulpan on Amazon.com.
More articles on Movies
- Cinema of Central America and the Caribbean
- Cinema of North America
- Cinema of Oceania and the Pacific
- Cinema of East and Southeast Asia
- Cinema of West and Central Asia
- Cinema of South Asia
Content creator Pim Razenberg is an experienced traveller who’s been roaming the planet for many years. After a stint in the Dutch film industry, he lived and worked in Romania, the United Kingdom and Thailand. Pim is currently working in the Netherlands, bringing creative new projects to fruition and writing a novel detailing his journeys across the world.