The other day I was clearing out my garage and found one of my childhood VHS tapes. As a child, I was not really allowed to watch TV but my parents had brought me every single Disney movie that ever existed. They were piled high in the lounge at the side of the TV, and when I was good or especially on the weekends, we would watch movies with popcorn and yummy snacks.

The tape that I held in my hand was Aladdin, a story that inspired many Arabic movies. It is about a simple thief who found his fortune with a magic lamp and later became the prince of Agrabah.

Aladdin like many other Disney stories was the introduction for many of us as children to new and exotic cultures. Watching these movies we could be transported to distant lands and integrate our imaginations into new and never before thought of ideas.

Film like scene, of a sunsetting
A dramatic film like Arab movie scene. Source: Unsplash

As my love of films from around the world grew, subtitles sat at the bottom of the screen but I couldn’t take my eyes off the films I was watching. The Egyptian movie ‘The best of times’ by Hala Khalil, opened itself up like a beautifully wrapped gift, offering thought-provoking, raw and culturally rich scenes. My love for Arabic movies, culture and its traditions was cemented.

Watching movies from other cultures can also help us learn a new language in context, supplementing Arabic lessons with film dialogue and subtitles.

An Introduction to Arab Movies

Arabic movies are defined as movies which are made by an Arab filmmaker, often focused on Arabic history and culture but can also take on other more international topics.

Cinema and film were slow to arrive in the Arab world; it wasn’t accepted in Saudi Arabia until the 1960s but in Egypt, film flourished early on with some of its first screenings in the 1890s. Because of this, Egypt has developed a very strong film industry and roughly 75% of Arab movies celebrated today are created there. (Source: Wikipedia)

Although Egyptian movies dominate the Arabic filmmaking space, other countries within Arabia are now starting to create films and frequent international film festivals. This is very exciting as it is giving us the opportunity to see and experience the Arabic world through the eyes of new filmmakers whose experience may be different to that of an Egyptian Filmmaker.

This new artistic expression, from countries like Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq are highlighting new stories and landscapes, adding richness to Arabian cinema.

The 15 Best Arabic Movies To Watch

You can learn Arabic online or in front of your TV by streaming Arabic films in the original language.

Some of the most famous Arabian films that have won awards at international film festivals or just have a huge following are as follows, sorted by category to help you pick out your next movie!

FilmCountryDirector
West BeirutLebanonZiad Doueiri
Where Do We Go Now?LebanonNadine Labaki,
The Yacoubian BuildingEgyptMarwan Hamed
AsmaaEgyptAmr Salama
The ProphetUSAMultiple

For these next picks, be sure to search for the mentioned trailers on YouTube...

War films

1. West Beirut

West Beirut is a film about civil war, the loss of innocence and the coming of age of these 2 boys. The film stars 2 teenaged boys who are dedicated to finding film for an old camera. They decide to take an adventure through dangerous and prohibited parts of the country to find the film.

We see how their awareness grows as they are faced with the reality of survival in the midst of civil war. West Beirut is a Lebanese film which was released in 1998 and directed by Ziad Doueiri. It has won international acclaim as one of the best Lebanese films ever made.

Film Trailer: West Beirut

2. Where Do We Go Now?

Where Do We Go Now? a film about civil war but this film takes a comic approach to a serious subject. The film is based in a village, with half Christian and half Muslim inhabitants. Tensions are high in the village due to religious differences. The film shows the attempts of the women in the village to calm and distract the men from their religious disagreements.

The film makes a stand to highlight how stupid war is and to show women’s empowerment. Where do we go now is a Lebanese film which was released in 2012 and directed by Nadine Labaki. It has won multiple awards at various international film festivals.

Film Trailer: Where Do We Go Now?

Comedy/drama films

3. Barakah Meets Barakah

Barakah Meets Barakah is a modern film (2016) coming from Saudi Arabia and directed and written by Mahmoud Sabbagh. The drama-comedy is about a middle-class man who meets a girl from a different social class and they fall for each other, however finding somewhere to meet safely and in secret is incredibly difficult in Saudi Arabia. The movie is available to stream on Netflix.

Film Trailer: Barakah Meets Barakah

4. Clash (Eshtebak)

Clash is another 2016 drama, internationally co-produced and directed by Mohamed Diab. The movie takes place from start to finish in an 8m police truck holding prisoners from different social backgrounds and with varying political beliefs who are being transferred to Cairo, Egypt. The movie focuses on the different characters' lives and aims to prove that despite our differences we are, in one way or another, all the same.

Film Trailer: Clash

Films about ancient/modern society

5. The Yacoubian Building

The Yacoubian Building is a film about modern Egyptian society. The film follows the lives of the people who are connected and living within the historic building which is in downtown Cairo. Set in the time of the first gulf war, the Yacoubian Building, weaves a thin thread carefully between each of the residents, to show how each of their lives, are intertwined and dependant on each other.

The Yacoubian Building is an Egyptian film released in 2006 and directed by Marwan Hamed. It is said to have had the biggest budget of all Egyptian movies ever made. It broke the record for box office returns in its first week and was Egypt’s official submission to the Academy Awards. This is a must-see film.

Film Trailer:  The Yacoubian Building

6. The Night (Al-Lail)

Directed by Mohammad Malas and released in 1993, this Syrian film is about the director's home town of Quneitra which was almost completely destroyed in the 1967 war by the Israelis and is still very much unrecovered with much of the place still in ruins. The film uses autobiographical stories from three generations to take you on a journey through history, from the Syrian fight for independence against France in the 1930s, through modern day. Malas is a popular Syrian director and well-regarded in the international film scene.

7. Sand Storm

You might think from the title that this film is going to be set in the outdoors among the desert but actually most of it is filmed behind closed doors, in a Bedouin village situated in the Negev Desert. Illustrating a conventional Arabic society, the movie director Elite Zexer shines a light on parts of this culture that are typically concealed, highlighting how men oppress women.

Film Trailer: Sand Storm

8. The Mummy (Al-Mummia), aka The Night of Counting the Years

The Mummy (Al-Mummia), aka The Night of Counting the Years, is a movie by Shadi Abdel Salam which is set in Egypt at the end of the 19th century (although the film was released much later in 1969. It tells the story of a poor family trading illegal treasures to earn a living and shows the similarities between ancient and modern Egypt and the importance of maintaining pharaonic culture. The sets and costume for that time were stunning!

Film Trailer: The Mummy

Arab Movie like scene
Dramatic scenes from Arab films. Source: Unsplash.

Films about hope and survival

9. Asmaa

Asmaa is a film about the perception of disease, empowerment and letting go of fear. The film follows Asmaa a woman suffering from AIDS, despite being up against ridicule and unkindness. Asmaa becomes determined to recover and regain her life. She brings hope to others suffering from AIDS and in her strength fights for basic human rights helping others overcome fear in the process.

Asmaa is the first film of its kind to show people suffering from AIDS with compassion and sympathy. It is an inspirational film released in 2011 and directed by Amr Salama. Asmaa was received at film festivals around the world with great esteem

Film Trailer: Asmaa

10. The Worthy

Telling the story of a worldwide water contamination, The Worthy features a small group of survivors who find a clean water source and must try to stay alive in what seems like a deadly game with no clue who to trust.

Film Trailer: The Worthy

Crime thrillers

11. Very Big Shot (Film Kteer Kbeer)

A Lebanese drug dealer attempts to smuggle a million-dollar illegal shipment across the borders in a dangerous, coerced move along with his two brothers and an inexperienced filmmaker. The crime comedy was directed by Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya and is available on Netflix.

Film trailer: Very Big Shot

12. Rattle the Cage (Zenzana)

Rattle the Cage is a 2015 film coming from the UAE and telling the story of a man trapped in a prison with his imagination torturing him as the a new officer comes in and torments the place. As the bloodbath ensues, Talal pictures his ex-wife and son through a series of visions.

Film Trailer: Rattle the Cage

Feminist films

13. Fertile Memory (Al Dhakira al Khasba)

Michel Khleifi, 1980

Directed by Michel Khleifi in 1980, this was the first Arabic, feminist film of its kind. Fertile Memory tells the tale of two women: a  young Palestinian novelist with radical views and beliefs, divorced and living in Occupied Territories with her daughters; and the other, a woman who lost her partner following the 1948 war.

Film Trailer: Fertile Memory

Musicals

14. Watch out for ZouZou (Khally ballak min ZouZou)

Hassan Al Imam, 1972

Written by cartoonist Salah Jaheen and directed by Hassan Al Imam, this 1972 musical comedy is based on class conflict. The main character Zouzou comes from Cairo and is thrown into the student world at university.

Film Trailer: Watch out for ZouZou

Easy to follow Arabic movies for beginners

15. The Prophet

The Prophet is a Disney film about inspiration and enlightenment. The film follows Mustafa a poet who has been exiled due to the authorities being fearful about the power of his poems. He decides to return home with his maid and her daughter. The film is based on the classic book by Lebanese author Khalil Gibran, the prophet is one of the top-selling books of all time.

Uniquely each of the sections, within the movie has a different director. Although this isn’t an Arab filmmaker or director and is actually in English. It has an enchanting mix of Arabian and American Arabian writers, actors, cinematographers, directors, and producers to make it to my list.

Film Trailer: The Prophet

Famous Arab films
The best Arabian movies for language learning. Source: Pixabay

What you can take away from Arabic theatre

Watching these Arabian films has been an experience which has opened my eyes and heart to things that seem so familiar but yet are so completely unique to me at the same time. With each movie, I can see a reflection of my own life, of my thoughts, of my hopes and dreams. My emotions were awakened, on edge and pushed to the limit.

It is so important to support the artistic expression of different cultures around the world. Which expose us to new ways of seeing life, people and culture, effectively enriching our lives and leaving us forever changed.

So if you want to open your mind towards something new and have an expansive, thought-provoking Cinematic experience, look beyond movies made in your native language.

Grab your popcorn and enjoy!

Find Arabic courses London to help you enjoy these films in the original language.

You can also take online lessons.

You can also learn from Arab TV.

Explore how you can enhance your learning with Arabic songs.

Need an Arabic teacher?

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Vanessa