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Arab Shorts 2011: Inspiring Short Film Festival in Cairo

Arab Shorts 2011: Inspiring Short Film Festival in Cairo
written by
Yasmin Shehab

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 clich
és 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.

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