Five MENA shorts to watch at Visions du Réel

A slice of life from the entire Middle East North Africa region is on display in these documentaries short on length but possessing a lot of soul
Five MENA shorts to watch at Visions du Réel

Visions du Réel is a documentary film festival held in April of each year in Nyon, Switzerland. This year's edition runs from the 15th to the 24th of April and is being held both virtually as well as hosting a few in-person screenings at local cinemas.

The festival was established in the late 60's and is currently under the direction of Emilie Bujès. Its founders, Moritz de Hadeln and his wife Erika de Hadeln, once said about it: "Our motivations at that time were strictly political. We believed in documentary, we all had the same idea that documentary could change the society which we live in." In fact, documentaries hold one up on television news, as they can show the long term effects of an event -- while the media focuses on the breaking news impact of a particular incident.

Nowhere is this concept more apparent than in the five shorts which are listed below. We never see the original occurrence, rather witness the aftereffects of many years of issues and struggles. Whether it's Iran, Algeria, the Western Sahara or Israel, it is obvious that the stories hail from much deeper than what meets the eye. And yet these filmmakers have made works of art that linger in the viewer's thoughts, with the ability to change one's outlook and reprogram our prejudices. You certainly won't get that from the evening news!

Here is the list, in no particular order, just simply as this writer watched them.

Galb’Echaouf by Abdessamad El Montassir

(2021, WSAH, Morocco, 18 min)

Just a short 18 minutes in length, this film by artist and filmmaker Abdessamad El Montassir provides us with a cinematic postcard of his native Western Sahara. "A land where it was always day... stones bloomed like flowers... until night pretending to be day made everything disappear," go the opening lines of the film, narrated by, I assume, the filmmaker himself.

Desert people have always been fascinating because their culture and livelihood managed to thrive despite the obvious hardship. As we face a pandemic in the world today, nomadic tribes of the harsher lands also hold the key to our salvation since solitude and learning how to thrive in being alone seems to be the answer for our way forward. I found myself watching this film over and over to try and allow the wisdom of nomads to sink in. Plus, visually El Montassir is a maestro, it's enough to view the header image of this piece (above) to realize that.

7000tours/min ("7000 RPM") by Daouya Feriel Achir

(2021, France, Algeria, 12 min)

A still from 7000RPM by Daouya Feriel Achir

What is most fascinating about this documentary about a man passionate about cars and racing is that it is filmed by a woman. I know, it may sound sexist but it's a feat how Achir manages to capture his inner most feelings, while also leaving the answers to questions like "is this a simple story about a boy and his car?" to the audience. As viewers, we remain unaware of the filmmaker's gender until, towards the end, we hear her soft, timid voice chiming in and suddenly realize her achievement.

I agree wholeheartedly with festival director Emilie Bujès who writes in the program about this film "the portrait of a promising and determined young filmmaker is between the lines sketched out." There is something magical happening in this film and a lot has to do with the woman shooting it, when she captures insight from leading subject Amine. "I only feel alive when I'm close to death," he says, and with that statement, we the audience begin to question our own definition of feeling alive.

The Promise by Roni Azgad

(2020, Israel, 24 min)

Roni Azgad is another phenomenal woman in my book. Here is a filmmaker who singlehandedly captures the heartbreak and tragedy of her land. And she does it by taking the audience on a journey to more hopeful times -- the Israel of the 90's when peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis seemed a not-too-distant probability. This was a time when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shook hands in Camp David, and Yitzhak Rabin, in all his human imperfections, inspired with his speeches -- until he was assassinated by an extremist settler.

There is no pathos in The Promise, no manipulating the audience, it's just a heartfelt love song to Azgad's country of birth, through amateur videos, including the filmmaker's own family home movies, and archival material, punctuated by a soundtrack of Ethnix's period pop-rock songs. And the hopeless that has been a reality for both sides since the breakdown, the failure of the Oslo Accords.

Noe by Zeineb Ghorbel

2020, Tunisia, 22 min

A still from Noe by Zeineb Ghorbel

We are all familiar with the issue of hoarding, whether by watching some reality show about it on TV or in our own lives. But in Noe, Houda hoards animals -- mostly cats and dogs which are sometimes "thrown" into her yard, as she points out. At first sight, we could easily call her a looney cat lady, but it's almost immediately apparent that Houda's attachment to animals has a root cause in her distrust of humans.

Ghorbel is masterful in capturing the environment in all its filth, and while watching it, I could swear I smelled the obvious stench of too many animals in an enclosed space. But she is also an invisible fly on the wall, pardon my pun, as a filmmaker and at one point Houda's outbreak reveals a map to the tormenting secrets that led to her obsession. Noe is wonderful in bringing up the question of companionship and how the animal world will often fill in where our fellow humans fail us. But it's also a slice of life, a moment in time spent with a woman, beautiful in her own way, who has clearly been to the edge of hell, and found a way to survive. Just as Noah's Ark, the cats and dogs in Houda's life help her stay afloat, provide her with hope and unconditional love.

Bitter Wind by Mohammad Ehsani

(2020, Iran, 15 min)

Among all the shorts, last but not least is a film by award winning Iranian-born documentarian Mohammad Ehsani. While we often think of shorter length films being made by beginner filmmakers, it's fascinating to see that Ehsani chooses the medium to tell the struggle of the people who live in villages around the Sistan in the southeast of Iran. As the viewer watches this haunting film on survival in the harshest of conditions, a question comes up. Why is it necessary for someone like Gianfranco Rosi to make a film like Notturno, when filmmakers in the MENA can talk about their own lands with so much poetry and insight? To quote a critic who wrote about Rosi's work, every film on this list here "can find a Caravaggio painting in a shot." And more. Much much more.

Bitter Wind is so intimate in parts that I could view the length of the eyelashes of the camels calling this tundra home. It boasts a stunning sound design by Gisoo Azadravesh, as the microphone captures the relentless sound of the wind and breathtaking cinematography by Mohammad Reza Teimouri.

But ultimately what it achieves best is to point us to the undeniable fact that even though we may be separated by oceans and speak different languages, we are all incredibly alike and united by our shared humanity. And we should never forget that.

All images courtesy of Visions du Réel

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