Founded by the Goethe Institute in 2009, what was supposed to be a one-off event has snowballed into a festival that is now in its third round. Arab Shorts showcases independent short films from the Middle East and North Africa and is basically divided into two parts; the festival and the website. The festival showcases the films and offers a chance for the viewers to interact with the filmmakers and curators, while the website provides an online database and platform to make the films more accessible to a wider, global audience.
The curators are the secret weapon here. Contrary to many film festivals, Arab Shorts doesn’t operate on a basis of calls for submissions. The curators, who hail from all over the Arab world and who aren’t limited by any rules, are in charge of finding films that appeal to them personally and that fit into their chosen theme. This is the primary reason for the general high quality of the works showcased.
Launched on Thursday, October 27th, the opening night’s line-up was set up by directors and curators Hala Galal and Ayman Hussein, and operated under the theme 'Personal Freedom: Fiction Within The Truth.' Of the eight films, all of which were Egyptian, half were profiles of people, two were fictional and two tackled the Egyptian revolution in a more introspective and experimental way.
Of the four films that profiled people, Ziad Hassan’s Our Weapon and Omar El Shamy’s Karim were the most engaging. Our Weapon is a portrayal of the filmmaker and his friend’s endeavours in expressing themselves through political graffiti. The film shows the whole process without once showing anybody’s face. The camera instead focuses on the action, the participants’ body language and their conversations.
On the other hand, Karim profiles a day in the life of the homeless kid with a passion for singing. Both films seem very honest, organic and non-intrusive and although the filmmakers don’t appear in their films except for the occasional comment from behind the camera, their presence is still felt; it's almost like a conversation between the filmmaker and the subject.
May El Hossamy’s Suspended Freedom and Agathe Dirani’s Under The Iron are rather similar to Karim in that they also showcase a day in the life of an underprivileged person. Suspended Freedom shadows a maid who is a cancer survivor and has to work two jobs to support her family, despite her ailing health because her junkie husband was incarcerated and thus unable to contribute to the family’s finances.
Under the Iron follows a young boy, Mina, as he works on a construction site, wiggling into places too small for adults, to secure iron wires. This film was eye-opening in the sense that the issue of Egyptian child labour is rarely discussed here in Egypt. In contrast to the previous two films, the subjects showcased in these films seem rather self-conscious, thus creating a gulf between the film subject and the viewer. Mina in particular seemed to be putting on an act. On the other hand, the maid profiled in El Hossamy’s film seems less insecure. When she recounts her story, she seems very natural and uninhibited, and her matter-of-fact tone is heartbreaking.
The films that tackle the revolution were a breath of fresh air. They were the exact opposite of the simplistic, worn-out clichés that we’ve been bombarded with. Instead of taking a didactic stance, they simply present the personal experiences of the filmmakers.
Mahmoud Farag’s 04.02.2011 was the only film of the bunch that could be truly described as experimental. It features Farag's voiceover reminiscing rather monotonously about his experiences as a protester, in combination with shots of him taking a shower. The film didn’t quite land, though; as the voiceover was very distracting and the visuals didn’t add any insights.
Noha El Maadawy’s Four Seasons was much more powerful; it deals with the dichotomy she feels as a thirty-something–year-old woman between her upbringing that stressed respecting authority figures and her post-revolutionary mindset that encourages her to be critical of them.
While all the previous films were obviously made on miniscule budgets, the last two films were obviously endowed with bigger budgets as manifested in their higher production values. Omar Khaled’s Payback was highly reminiscent of Khaled Youssef’s films with its melodramatic portrayal of the exploited, oppressed and corrupt.
Similarly overwrought was Ramy Rizkallah’s I Am Asser, which stars Bushra as a single mother unable to tell her son that his father is dead. The stress and fear of losing her child make her increasingly overbearing and stifling, until her son decides that enough is enough and stands up to her. Both these films prove that bigger budgets don’t necessarily mean better films.
This festival is inspiring for independent film buffs who are interested in films coming out of the region and for independent filmmakers, especially those who feel burnt out and need a reminder of why they chose to pursue filmmaking.