Often the starting point in the career path of acclaimed feature filmmakers, a short film can propel a director's work all the way to the Oscars. But to qualify, a short has to participate in at least one award-qualifying festival and win a prize there. In the past, the Dubai International Film Festival held special status for Academy Award qualification for shorts, but with its demise in 2018, many filmmakers from the MENA region were left without a vital resource.
A perfect example of the power of DIFF in helping Arab filmmakers get to the coveted Oscar ceremony was the film Ave Maria by Palestinian British filmmaker Basil Khalil which won the Best Muhr Short Award in Dubai in 2015 and went on to the Academy Awards, nominated as Best Short Film, Live Action at the 2016 ceremony. I mention Khalil as he's a wonderful example but also has a film in this year's ShortFest, this time wearing the producer's hat on Nour Shams (pictured above) the second short film written and directed by Saudi filmmaker Faiza Ambah -- who by the way was a producer on Ave Maria.
The upcoming Palm Springs International Film Society will mark another exciting milestone as its annual Palm Springs ShortFest becomes the first film festival in the state of California to hold all of its screenings in-theatre in 2021. The event returns to the Camelot Theatres (Palm Springs Cultural Center) from June 22-28.
Among the films selected are shorts from Iran, Saudi, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Occupied Palestine, Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey.
From Pakistan, comes 1978 by Karachi born Hamza Bangash who calls Canada home. Bangash has previously directed several other shorts including Stray Dogs Come Out at Night and Dia. His latest work focuses on "Lenny, a rockstar from the Christian community, is offered the chance to reinvent himself as a state-sanctioned singer. With Islamic fervor gripping the nation, he must decide if he can change with the times," as the film's synopsis says. The title refers to the year when the story takes place, in Pakistan -- a year that marked a turning point for the nation.
American Eid by Aqsa Altaf Congratulations by Asad Farooqui and The Long Goodbye by Aneil Karia are also made by Pakistani filmmakers living in the diaspora, the latter starring Riz Ahmed -- an actor near and dear to MIME's heart for his work in helping to "normalize the Other."
From Saudi, there is Nour Shams of course, which touches on issues of belonging, immigration, the generational gap and fulfilling one's dreams, in a beautifully styled film that is a pleasure for the eyes. Starring Aisha Al Rifaie and Ahmad Saddam, as mother and son, but also featuring a cameo by award-winning Saudi filmmaker Shahad Ameen, the film is a cinematic jewel, as well as a testament to the power of cross-countries cooperation in film. It is one of the few shorts I was lucky to have watched before its world premiere.
Another to watch from Saudi Arabia is The Girls Who Burned the Night by Sara Mesfer, a short which won a special Jury mention at the 42nd Cairo International Film Festival in 2020.
From North Africa, there is Ain't No Time for Women, a documentary short by Tunisian helmer Sarra El Abed, which focuses on a group of women inside a ladies' salon in Tunis during the elections in November of 2019. A wondrous look at democracy from a women's viewpoint and a film I crave to watch. The Departure is a French/Moroccan co-production by Saïd Hamich Benlarbi which has already garnered awards around Europe and deals with the story of 11-year-old Adil who is upset by the visit of his father and big brother, who will leave for France at any moment.
From Sudan there is the Doha Film Institute supported title Al-Sit by Suzannah Mirghani, a 20-minute short whose synopsis reads as follow: "In a cotton-farming village in Sudan, 15-year-old Nafisa has a crush on Babiker, but her parents have already arranged her marriage to a young businessman living abroad. Meanwhile, Nafisa's grandmother Al-Sit, the powerful village matriarch, has her own plans for Nafisa's future. Caught between two rigid traditions, Nafisa must find a way to forge her own path."
From Egypt, two films stand out, What We Don’t Know about Mariam by Morad Mostafa, produced by prolific Egyptian filmmaker Sherif Elbendary which screens in the section "Public Spaces, Private Lives" and The Promised by Ahmed El Ghoneimy, a documentary taking place "in and around the historical ruins of Fustat in Old Cairo, tensions simmer between the site’s government-appointed guards and the residents of a nearby settlement," as its intro goes.
Israel is also represented, as well as Palestinian first time filmmaker Saleh Saadi's Borekas -- although the film's country of origin is listed as Israel. Starring Yussuf Abu-Warda (a fantastic actor we cannot get enough of in TV and cinema) and Anan Abu-Jaber as father and son, the film tells the simple tale of a road journey gone awry, which becomes a means for two estranged relatives to reconnect.
Also Mission: Hebron by Rona Segal and Vlada Goes to London by Arti Savchenko are two other titles from Israel that are on our radar. One is a doc about ex-soldiers in the Israeli army taking about their experiences, the other a short tale of a woman who needs desperately to make enough money in one night to travel to the UK for a gig as a DJ.
Iran is represented at ShortFest by Daily Massacre in Tehran by Hessam Hamidi and Spotted Yellow by Baran Sarmad. One about a young boy, the other about a young girl, each facing their own struggle with what makes them different. Iraq is present with Silence by
Lebanon is always a great incubator of filmmakers to watch in the region and there are two titles listing Lebanon as country of origin that caught our eye. One is
Remi Itani's Drought, a UK co-production, while the other A Broken House by Jimmy Goldblum is a US co-production. Itani's previous work includes two other shorts, A Long Breath, Dima and The Ghosts and the director/producer started her career as a documentary director for Al Jazeera Documentary Channel. Goldblum's documentary short tells the story of Syrian-American architect and artist Mohamad Hafez and how Hafez, stuck in the U.S. on a single-entry visa, eases his homesickness by sculpting life-like renditions of the home he left behind.
Rounding out the list are two from Afghanistan, Three Songs for Benazir by Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei, a documentary about young newlyweds Shaista and Benazir, who live in a camp in Kabul and try to make a living making mud bricks; as well as Bad Omen by Salar Pashtoonyar, this one a live action short in competition, about Pari, an in-house tailor working in Kabul, who must find the means to purchase her prescription glasses in order to save her job.
And finally, from Turkey, The School Bus, a student short by Ramazan Kılıç about a young teacher in a rural village school in Anatolia who takes hold of the wheel of her own destiny, pardon the pun and makes a small yet heroic gesture; and The Criminals by Serhat Karaaslan, the odyssey of a young couple who are trying to find a hotel room to spend the night together, but face rejection from every hotel for not having the required marriage certificate.
For all info, tickets and passes, check out the ShortFest website.