As festival coordinator Liana Kassir explained: “This is a festival without internal borders, showcasing Arab filmmakers to an Arab audience.”
The short film marathon opened on May 23 to a large audience at the Medina Theater in the Lebanese capital’s bustling Hamra district. It will close on Tuesday, when the six-member jury awards the prizes, with a concert by popular Egyptian singer Mohamed Mohsen. In an unusual twist, the jury members themselves will also be screening their films—though not competing—during the festival.
For example, Egyptian filmmaker and jury member Ahmad Abdallah’s film Window opened the first show. As a feature-length filmmaker, Abdallah praised the freedom available to those working in the short film genre, saying: “I think short filmmakers have an advantage in many ways, because they don’t have the production restrictions we have as feature filmmakers.”
Window, which explores a fleeting romance between two Egyptian youths, was originally premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. It is also one of the ten films that make up the feature-length 18 Days, a retrospective of the 18 days that led to the resignation of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The opening night line-up explored themes of destruction, nationalism, family, love and fear. Two Syrian films—MiG, a documentary shot at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus by Thaer Al-Sahli and King Never Dies, a drama set in a Syrian prison by Yamen Al-Moghrabi—explored, in very different but equally defiant ways, the seemingly endless oppression felt in Syria. These two shorts were followed by a lively animation by the Lebanese film student Marilyn Haddad, Une Famille Plus Ou Moins Normale (A More or Less Normal Family).
Powerful cinematography was evidently one of the many things the festival’s organizers were looking for when choosing shorts to showcase. It was seen to great effect in The Depths by Youssef Chebbi, in which the mundane meets the beautiful in this contemporary vampire horror set in picturesque Tunisia. Another dramatic film was a Moroccan short, Entropya, by Yassine Marco. Set in an apartment, it follows a conversation between a husband and wife expressing their hatred for one another as he eats soup she has poisoned.
“We wanted to achieve a balance, sometimes contrasting sometimes complementary,” Kassir said by way of explanation as to how the festival had selected its films. Closely tied to fine arts universities across the Middle East, in its early years the festival was a platform for students, but has matured into a celebration of all up-and-coming Arab filmmakers.
In another showing, the fine line between Syria’s present and Lebanon’s past was touched upon in Batoul . . . Do you see me? by Ghina Abboud. The film follows a Syrian man arriving in Beirut and his interaction with a Lebanese girl. Speaking to The Majalla on opening day, the young Lebanese filmmaker explained the challenges facing her country and her art: “Lebanon has passed through so many revolutions and wars, it is now in our veins . . . It is harder for us to express ourselves in the arts because nobody invests in them, even here in Lebanon . . . Being an Arab filmmaker here makes me one of the passionate or crazy few,” she said.
These tensions so familiar in Lebanon and the wider Arab world perhaps cannot help but come out even in an exhibition of short cinema. But Abdallah is keen to stress that just because the filmmakers showcased are all Arab does not mean they speak with a single voice. “I am not in favor of putting all Arab filmmakers in one box,” he said. “We are all affected by each other as countries in the Arab region, but we remain diverse and isolated as film cultures . . . Moroccan cinema, for example, is totally different to cinema in the Gulf.”
But for now, recognition and funding for this new wave of Arab filmmakers is growing, albeit at a slow pace. In the meantime, the Arab Short Film Festival is a rare opportunity for audiences and filmmakers alike to celebrate their art.
The Arab Short Film Festival runs until May 27 at the Medina Theater in Beirut.