Arab Film Fest’s Standout ‘Our River...Our Sky’ Returns to 2006 Baghdad

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Two women lean toward each other, smiling and touch foreheads.
Meriam Abbas as Dijla and Darina Al Joundi as Sara in 'Our River...Our Sky.' (Courtesy Arab Film Festival)

The eight-year U.S. military occupation of Iraq inspired any number of narrative films by U.S. and U.K. filmmakers, most of them centered on soldiers. Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker and Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha, notably, depicted Iraqi civilians with palpable empathy but still relegated them to the perimeter. Thankfully, the Arab Film Festival, which opened its 25th edition in person last night and continues online through Nov. 24, provides an Iraqi point of view.

London-based filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi sets her enveloping saga of life during wartime, Our River...Our Sky, in 2006. Explosions near and distant send jarring noise and lingering smoke into the sky, while Baghdad’s residents strive to pursue a sense of normalcy—going to school, looking for love online—despite their myriad personal traumas and everyday dangers. A fiction writer (played with great charm and heart by Darina Al Joundi), compelled to earn money by translating her neighbors’ entreaties to American authorities while raising her daughter with the erstwhile help of her mother, embodies the warmth that permeates the film.

Our River...Our Sky, which is receiving its U.S. premiere Nov. 20 at the Roxie, is one of the 26 films in the lineup (out of 47 altogether) directed by women. The female perspective of the Arab world is more than a refreshing aspect of the Arab Film Festival, though. It’s an essential element that chips away at the stereotypes and limited understanding many have of the Middle East.

Two women touch the glass in front of man who is incarcerated.
A still from Mohamed Diab's 'Amira,' 2021. (Courtesy Arab Film Festival)

Amira, which opened the festival at the Castro, may be written and directed by a man (the estimable Mohamed Diab), but its title character and protagonist is a young Palestinian woman. Amira (Tara Abboud) was conceived some 18 years ago with her long-jailed father’s sperm, which was smuggled out of prison under rare but not unique circumstances. She’s always revered him, despite their limited moments together across the years. Then a chunk of unexpected news dislodges the pedestal, propelling Amira to a reckoning with her identity.

The Palestinian experience is also at the heart of Ameen Nayfeh’s inviting feature debut 200 Meters, which imagines a loving family living in separate households separated by a checkpoint. When the son suffers an injury, his easygoing, law-abiding father ventures far outside his comfort zone to pay a smuggler to drive him to the hospital in Israel.


200 Meters (Nov. 19 at the Roxie and Nov. 23 at the New Parkway), not unlike Our River...Our Sky, acknowledges the difficulties of daily life in the face of physical obstacles and invisible forces. Power and politics are never out of mind, but family and character carry the day.

The 2021 Arab Film Festival screens in-person Nov. 18–24 at various Bay Area theaters and online through Nov. 28. Details here.