One of the unexpected consequences of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 has been the resurgence of Middle Eastern and North African cinema.

Alongside the established players - Egypt, still living off its Bollywood-on-the-Nile reputation, and arthouse darling Iran - countries with little cinematic infrastructure have begun to emerge.

In 2003, Siddiq Barmak led Afghanistan out of the club of nations that have never produced a feature film with Osama. Two years later, Bader Ben Hirsi did the same for Yemen with A New Day In Old Sana'a.

The motivations of this new breed of Middle Eastern directors are varied, but what they all have in common is a desire to tell their own stories, to counter what is widely felt to be the distorted view of the region offered by the Western media.

In Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad's 2006 Paradise Now, a suicide bombing is seen from the point of view of the perpetrators - its story of two men groomed for a mission into Israel stresses the everyday banality of the process.

And Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid's Making Of juxtaposes the pressures on a young Tunisian breakdancer who falls under the influence of fundamentalists with the pressures on the lead actor himself, nervous about playing this controversial role.

Both features testify to the pluralism and sophistication of the debate on terrorism and religious fundamentalism within the region.

But it is not just film-makers living and working in the Middle East and the Maghreb who are keen to stir debate.

Born in France to Algerian parents, Paris-based director Rachid Bouchareb scored a critical and commercial success at the end of last year with Days Of Glory, which tells the story of four North Africans who fought for France in the Second World War.

Not all Middle Eastern film-makers are so directly political. Making 'ordinary' films in countries such as Lebanon or Israel is a statement in itself. Nadine Labaki's Caramel, a comedy centring on a Beirut beauty salon, was one of the buzz titles at Cannes this year.

And later at San Sebastian, everybody was talking about Tzahi Grad's Foul Gesture, a blackly comic movie set in Tel Aviv that comes on like Oldboy with bagels.

It is perhaps no accident that uneasy neighbours Lebanon and Israel should be the territories to watch.

Both are media-savvy and desperate to assert their right to normality, and audiences outside the region - especially in core European territories - seem to be responding. Having 'embedded' co-production partners may help: Lebanese Oscar entry Caramel, for example, was majority-produced in France by Les Films des Tournelles.

But there also seems to be an appetite among liberal, cine-literate Westerners for authentic local takes on a region too often filtered through the distorting lens of the TV news bulletin.

At this year's Venice Days sidebar, the title that really roused the audience was another Lebanese film, Philippe Aractingi's Under The Bombs, made on a shoestring budget during the Israeli bombardment of July 2006. A tale of a mother's search for her son in southern Lebanon, the film has a cast of two - all the other people on screen are for real.

Meanwhile Israeli director Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit, a quietly brave comedy about an Egyptian brass band lost in Israel, looks set to become the one film from the region guaranteed a substantial US airing.

After premiering in Cannes, the film has chalked up an impressive tally of festival prizes and sales deals - including with Sony Classics, which is releasing the title in the US on February 8.

Ironically for a film that hinges on the need for understanding between Arabs and Israelis, The Band's Visit was rejected by this year's Cairo International Film Festival, and saw its invitation to the new Abu Dhabi festival withdrawn, ostensibly due to an 'inter-office miscommunication', according to John Fitzgerald, the event's director.

This came just a week after the film was disqualified as Israel's Oscar nomination on a technicality - because the Egyptian and Israeli characters use English as a common language.

The struggle to cross borders

Egypt is in far better shape now than it was at the end of the 1990s, but it is still struggling to sell its films to the rest of the world.

On the one hand, taboo subjects such as homosexuality are being addressed for the first time in the likes of The Yacoubian Building, the blockbuster produced by smart new media player The Good News Group, which broke Egyptian box-office records in the summer of 2006.

And veteran director Youssef Chahine proved he has lost none of his campaigning spirit with Venice competition entry Chaos, a socio-political drama set in a multi-cultural suburb of Cairo.

But the melodramatic style of both films, and their rather prurient critique of moral decadence, are cleft sticks for producers looking to recoup increasingly large budgets ($4m in the case of The Yacoubian Building).

Too hot for many Arab territories, The Yacoubian Building will be seen in the West in some respects as 'dated and shallow' (according to UK newspaper The Guardian). It is significant that the only European territory in which the film scored more than a succes d'estime was France, with its large North African community - and even there Bac Films only risked a 40-screen release in August 2006, compared to Caramel's 220 screens this year.

Iranian directors, meanwhile, produce a handful of well-received arthouse features, including Buddha Collapsed Out Of Shame by Hana Makhmalbaf. But Western audiences only see the tip of the iceberg: among the 80 or so films produced annually are low-grade comedies and 'sacred defence' films, designed to celebrate Iran's spirit of resistance during its war with Iraq.