Sofia De Vera combines a heartfelt passion for cinema with over 15 years of critiquing for esteemed film publications, wielding academic credentials from the University of Southern California and New York University, to serve as your personal guide through the enchanting worlds of film and television.
The Middle East has a lot to offer both national and international filmmakers with exquisite natural and urban landscapes, a rich cultural tapestry – and various state-organized film tax credits and incentives programs. So it will come as no surprise that there are so many unforgettable movies set in the Middle East…
The Middle East is a place full of history. It is in this very place that mankind came to realize its potential: society grew larger and larger, and we became masters of the region. The first cities were born, as well as the first Empires.
It’s a place worshipped by people all over the world: the birthplace of all Judeo-Christian religions, as well as all the Islamic ones. Its walls have stood for millennia and who knows how many years more will still stand. If there’s one feeling that the Middle East provokes in everyone, it’s awe: at its size, its significance, and its history.
In sum, the Middle East is a place one must visit. Especially now, where tensions between the East and the West seem higher than before. That’s why we must get closer to this place: if not through traveling, through watching a movie.
Understanding the point of view of someone else, that’s the way to defeat bigotry. These films will make you more familiar with the Middle East: some teach about its cultures or its religions, and some just showcase how strikingly beautiful this region is. Whatever of those it may be, they will surely fire up your wanderlust.
Watching a good movie is the best way to get inspired and choose your next destination. It is the reason we have assembled various lists of the best films shot in some of our all-time favorite travel destinations: Barcelona, Dubai, South Africa, Thailand, and New York City (among others).
There are things that a photo alone can’t capture. We are human, and we need movement: the waves crashing against a desolate beach, the sun setting against the soaring dune, and people walking side by side through an imposing urban canyon. These are things that are better experienced with movement. These are things that belong in movies. And these things can be found in the Middle East.
The films in this list of movies set in the Middle East paint a picture of a complex region filled with gorgeous sights and diverse voices – yet a deep history and frequent conflict. With this, we hope to help audiences step into the often-contradictory world of the Middle East and experience the scenery, subcultures, and different dynamics that make the Middle East what it is today.
Be forewarned that not all of these films are happy – tragedies and misery are as unavoidable in cinema as they are in life – be we promise that each one provides panoramic vistas and thought-provoking narratives from this tantalizing country…
Wondering where to watch? It depends on where you live in the world and which streaming services you have. We link to the streaming service we watch on in each case - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, or elsewhere.
You can get one month free of Amazon Prime (or a 6-month trial for students) of Amazon Prime and also get immediate access to FREE Two Day shipping, Amazon Video, and Music. While you won't be charged for your free trial, you'll be upgraded to a paid membership plan automatically at the end of the trial period - though if you have already binged all these, you could just cancel before the trial ends.
Apple TV+ also has a one-week trial, and Hulu has a one-month trial (which can be bundled with Disney!). Another option might be using a VPN to access Netflix titles locked to other regions. Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries worldwide and each country has a different library and availability. US Netflix is (understandably) one of the best.
While we wish everything could just be in one place - for now, it seems these are the best streaming platforms to watch on.
Perhaps David Lean’s most famous movie, Lawrence of Arabia is one of the most famous movies set in the Middle East brings the story of the daring T. E. Lawrence to life. A British soldier, Colonel Lawrence was sent to the Ottoman Empire in order to work in the Arab Bureau.
There, he became involved with the resistance fighters that opposed the Ottoman regime. During World War I, Lawrence fought together with the Arabian resistance in what was later known as the Arab Revolt, which lead to the capture of the beautiful city of Damascus in 1918. With his knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and the strong bonds he had formed with the revolutionaries, Lawrence became a diplomat working as a liaison between the British and the Arabian.
In 1926, Lawrence wrote a memoir where he chronicled his account of the Arab Revolt, together with all the things he had come to love about Arabian culture. The book was called Seven Pillars of Wisdom and served as source material for this 1962 film.
Lawrence of Arabia brings the viewer into the very depth of the desert. Filmed all around the Middle East and Europe, the film shows an incredible portrayal of this inhospitable region that is bound to make you fall in love with it: it turns the harshness of the desert into a stunning and charming mirage.
There are many incredible sights to be found in Lawrence of Arabia. You’ll be able to see the impressive red cliffs of Wadi Rumm, located in the country of Jordan, the primordial black mounds that make Jabal Tuwaiq, in Arabia, and even the gorgeous Moroccan city of Ouarzazate. This is a splendid movie for anyone interested in the Middle East, it’s bound to charm you.
Hidalgo is an epic biographical western set in Arabia. It’s a story about a man, Frank Hopkins, and his horse, an imposing mustang named Hidalgo.
Set in 1891, the film follows Hopkins as he sets out to the Middle East to race against the best Arabian horses, which the Bedouins used to ride. The film is based on a real story: Hopkins is known as one of the best long-distance horse riders to ever live. It truly isn’t known how accurate the movie is since most of it is based on Hopkins’ own memoirs and recollections of the fact, which many deem as unreliable. Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining movie that brings to light the long culture of horse breeding that characterizes Arabia.
The film begins in the United States, where Hopkins worked as part of famous showman Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Together with Hidalgo, the pair was known as “The world’s greatest endurance horse and rider”.
One day, they are visited by the attaché of a powerful Sheikh, a clan leader from Arabia, who invites them to the “Ocean of Fire”, a three-thousand-mile race through the Najd desert. While in this race, Hopkins will have to face tough competition and survive through a tumultuous political takeover.
This romantic war drama of epic proportions tells the story of an unrecognizable burn victim after World War II. As the war ends, the surviving cities are left with tons of wounded men who were hurt in the fight.
One of them is a mysterious man who has suffered such severe wounds that nobody can recognize him. In fact, even he doesn’t remember his name. The only thing they know about him is that he’s English. How? Because of his accent. Directed by Anthony Minghella, The English Patient sees the titular character telling his story to the nurse and another patient nearby. While he does not explicitly reveal his identity, the movie lets us in on the secret (spoiler ahead!): he is a Hungarian count by the name of László de Almásy, known for attempting to map the Saharan Desert.
As the English patient tells his story, we get to see the places he visited as an archeologist. The actual Almásy had traveled all over the world before World War II, but particularly through the Middle East. He is known for discovering some archeological sites of great importance both in Egypt and Libya. The Cave of Swimmers, for one, is the most notorious.
Located in Gilf Kebir, an impressive plateau in Egypt, the cave’s walls are adorned by painted depictions of people swimming, dating back at least ten thousand years. The English Patient tells a fascinating yet tragic story of love and adventure that’s made better thanks to the incredible performances of its main actors.
Kingdom of Heaven is set during the Third Crusade, telling the story of Balian of Ibelin, a young blacksmith who became a Crusader noble. This epic historical drama was directed by one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in Hollywood: Ridley Scott, the mind behind classic films like Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise and Gladiator. The film features an international star-studded cast and does a great job of bringing the historical conflict to life.
Set in 1184, Kingdom of Heaven follows Balian, a French blacksmith living in a village who is having trouble dealing with his wife’s suicide. A Crusader (knights who fought for the Christian Church during the Crusades) arrives and tells him he is his father. After some deliberation and an awry situation with the village’s priest, Balian decides to search for absolution fighting for the Church.
He quickly finds himself having to fight to defend the Kingdom of Jerusalem from a Saladin, the famous Muslim Sultan who led a decades-long war against the Crusader States. The film is loosely based on historical accounts of the time but does a great job of portraying Jerusalem during this tumultuous time. The highlight of the movie is the Battle of Hattin, a historical encounter between the Crusaders and Saladin that took place next to the old volcano Kurûn Hattîn.
This historical drama movie rocked the world back in 2012. It won actor, writer and director Ben Affleck his first and only Academy Award (with the film receiving three of these accolades). It’s evident that the critics loved this movie too, yet people were surprised to see it be so successful at the box office. Even with tense and dark subjects, Argo managed to connect with general audiences, perhaps due to the fact that it was based on a real-life event.
Set in 1979, the film tackles the Iran hostage crisis. When the Islamic Revolution came about, one of the things Iranians were rebelling against was the influence of the United States in local politics. So there was a generalized hostility to everything American. During the revolution, a group of American diplomats and citizens were held hostage after the Islamic rebels took over the embassy in the city of Tehran.
As the story goes, they were held there for over four hundred days, almost two years. They managed to escape thanks to Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck), an exfiltration specialist who devised a plan to disguise the hostages and take them out of the country. Argo follows the tense real-life developments with accuracy, bringing to the screen one of the most incredible operations in recent history.
Three Kings, by David O. Russell, is a black comedy that satirizes the whole idea of war films. The film features great performances by Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and even George Clooney.
Even in 1999, the filmmakers behind this movie knew that war films are inherently problematic: however you want to put it, the war films made in Hollywood always end up glorifying war. This is why the creators of Three Kings decided to make a war film that made fun of the genre as a whole. With an intelligent script and uproarious humor, this daring film became a critical and commercial success.
Set during the 1991 uprisings Iraqi uprisings, where the people of Iraq rose up in protest against Saddam Hussein’s government, the film tells the story of four American soldiers that stage a gold heist in the midst of the confusion. The soldiers follow the lead of a map, which they retrieved from an Iraqi officer, ascertaining the location of hidden gold ingots in a bunker near the city of Karbala.
They do find the gold, but it comes at a price: they become involved with the Iraqi rebels, becoming friends with them and helping them to continue their fighting.
This British romantic comedy is one of the best movies set in the Middle East and a perfect feel-good movie that also has the bonus of being set in the striking place that is the Yemen desert. Based on a novel of the same name published in 2007, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, by Lasse Hallström, tells the story of an attempt to bring fly fishing to Yemen, despite the outcry of Islamic fundamentalists.
The film follows Alfred, a British fisheries expert who is contacted by Harriet, a financial adviser, asking for his help in a project to create an artificial habitat for salmon to be fished in Yemen. While Alfred sees the project as an impossibility, he is pressured by the British government to take on the project in order to improve the political relations between Britain and the Islamic governments.
Finally, he accepts soon he finds himself in Yemen working with Harriet. As the two of them get closer, tension rises around the Sheiks decision to import a foreign sport into the Islamic country. When they are about to test the project, disaster strikes. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen touches on some dark issues, but at the end of the day, it’s a story about love and friendship beyond nations.
Persepolis is one of the greatest works of art to come from the Middle East in recent years. It was first conceived as a graphic novel of the same name with two volumes (which came out in 2000 and 2004 respectively).
When the opportunity to adapt the graphic novel into a movie came up, the creator was very excited by the prospect. This creator is Marjane Satrapi, who wrote the graphic novel and co-directed the film (in collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud), the heart and soul of Persepolis: the stories told in this work are directly taken from her experiences as a young Iranian girl during a time of much change and fear. For their work directing this movie, Satrapi and Paronnaud won the Jury Prize at Cannes and received a nomination at the Academy Awards.
Set first in 1979, Persepolis follows the life of a young Marjane as she deals with her daily life during the Iranian Revolution. In this time, the Islamic people rebelled against the American-puppeteered government of the Shah of Iran, abolishing his government and replacing it with an Islamic republic. This revolution encompassed all aspects of life, as Islamic fundamentalism became the law: even as a young child, Marjane is distraught by the drastic changes in her life.
Persepolis does a great job at portraying the bad side of the Islamic Revolution and all the bad deeds the government took part in. It’s a touching story that anyone should watch.
Tackling one of the most touching issues in the Middle East right now, Paradise Now, by Hany Abu-Assad, dives deep into the mind of two young Palestinian men who are planning a suicide attack in Israel.
This unsettling film allows us to take a look into the motivations behind this terrible kind of action without ever condoning it. Perhaps Paradise Now’s greatest achievement is managing to portray these two young men as real human beings and not just blind fanatics. It’s an unsettling film about an unsettling subject, yet it is necessary: as the director says, without understanding and humanizing the other side, conflicts like this will never get resolved.
As one may imagine, the film sparked several controversies regarding its subject matter, and also the fact that the movie came from Palestine: the ongoing dispute between Israel and Palestine over the latter’s legitimacy as an independent country is well known. Yet this didn’t manage to discourage critics: the movie was very well received, achieving the first Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film ever given to a Palestinian film.
It was also nominated for that year’s Academy Awards in the same category, although it lost against the great South African film Totsi. This thoughtful film is perfect for anyone interested in understanding the Middle East’s current conflicts.
This heart-touching drama film was a true achievement in Jordan’s cinema industry. Although many films had been shot in Jordan before, for the longest time there were no local filmmakers in the city. In 2003, the local government began investing in film education, and their efforts paid off with 2007’s Captain Abu Raed, the first feature film to be produced in the country in over fifty years.
The film tells the story of Abu Raed, an airport janitor who the local children believe to be a pilot. He plays along, telling them stories about his travels. Yet he quickly is exposed, to the disappointment of the children, by an older child called Murad. Instead of getting mad at him, Abu Raed becomes close with Murad, eventually helping him and his mother escape Murad’s abusive father.
Captain Abu Raed is one of the best movies set in the Middle East and a great movie for anyone interested in the charming country of Jordan. The film is set completely in the city of Amman, Jordan’s capital. From the opening sequences, we get to see some of the best things this city has to offer: the Amman Citadel, an archeological site dating back to the Kingdom of Ammon in 1200 BCE, which rises at the center of the city.
This one-of-a-kind historical site has been occupied by numerous groups. One can find evidence of the aforementioned kingdom, as well as the Roman and Byzantine Empires.
Lemon Tree, by Eran Riklis, is a dramatic film about a Palestinian woman who tries to stop the Israeli government from destroying the lemon trees on her farm next to the border.
While the premise may seem, at first glance, a charming simple thing, the movie is about much more than that. Exploring the conflict between these two Middle Eastern countries, Lemon Tree says a lot about the injustices that take place at the border. In fact, the film is based on a true story that happened years before, when Shaoul Mofaz, the Israeli Defense Minister, ordered a set of lemon trees to be uprooted.
Lemon Tree focuses on Salma, a Palestinian widow who lives on a family farm that has been passed down through several generations. One of the things she appreciates most is the lemon grove in her backyard, which also spans generations. When the Israeli Defense Minister moves to a house on the other side of the border, with a clear view of Salma’s backyard, the Secret Service determines that the lemon grove is a threat.
They argue that assassins may use it to hide, so they try to cut them down. This sparks a legal battle that gets to the bottom of the problems between Israel and Palestine.
Wadjda, by Haifaa al-Mansour, is the most talked-about Middle Easter film in recent years. This Saudi Arabian movie has much to do with Persepolis but, instead of being set during the eighties, it’s much closer to our present day.
Although ten years have passed since its release, it’s still incredibly relevant. Touching on the role of women, particularly young women, in Saudi society, Wadjda is a transgressive film filled with heart and hope.
Set in Riyadh, the film tells the story of Wadjda, a bright young girl who has one dream: to buy a beautiful green bicycle. She sees it every day as she goes to school. She sees it as she goes back to her home. When she asks her mother for the bike, she immediately says no: not only is the bicycle expensive, but people in Saudi Arabia don’t like women riding bikes, as it’s seen as improper.
And so it is that Wadjda decides to take matters into her own hands: she starts to earn money by selling bracelets and mixtapes at school. But it’s not enough. She finally finds a solution: she’ll participate in a Quran reading competition in order to win the cash prize. Wadjda is so determined, that she actually seems to be about to make it. Yet things take a turn for the worse.
Perhaps what’s best about Wadjda is its ending. The filmmakers could have ended the movie on a sad note, leaving no trace of hope in the system they are critiquing. But it doesn’t go that route: instead, Wadjda shows that the bond between mother and daughter, between woman and woman, is stronger than everything else.