Arab short films tackle weighty topics at the Dubai International Film Festival

“The Crossing” is a simple but striking story from the Israeli occupation. (Photo courtesy: DIFF)
Updated 12 December 2017
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Arab short films tackle weighty topics at the Dubai International Film Festival

DUBAI: The Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), which is set to run until Dec. 13, once again brings together a wealth of regional and international filmmaking talent. Aside from the Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters, DIFF is a place where you can find some of the hottest Arab filmmakers’ latest work.
Arab News took a look at a selection of the short films created by Arab talent currently showing at DIFF in the festival’s Muhr Shorts category and found regional filmmakers taking on social, personal and political issues in innovative and interesting ways and through a variety of genres.
In English-language short “The Scapegoat,” Saudi filmmaker Talha B. creates a smart conceit to examine the psyche. Bestselling author Paul Dugan is struggling to write his next novel and decides to try and break his writer’s block by isolating himself in a cabin in the woods. He is joined for dinner by three personifications of his inner thoughts — the antagonistic, critical Vincent; preppy, theatrical optimist Orson; and the timid, intellectual Michael. Paul has concluded one of them has to be eliminated in order for him to continue his writing. He can’t decide which, so decides Russian roulette is the way to go.
Egyptian-American actor and comedian Ahmed Ahmed plays all four roles, and does so winningly, creating subtle physical and vocal nuances for each character. Talha B. has a knack for producing strikingly framed shots and manages to convey a sense of the mental claustrophobia plaguing Dugan. It’s an example of a good idea delivered well — not an easy feat, as several of the other shorts show.
Take “Arasian,” from Emirati filmmaker Ahmad Al Tunaiji. The idea — a half-Filipino, half-Emirati schoolboy being bullied because of his mixed heritage and trying to find the courage to stand up for his Filipino side — is a compelling one, tackling themes of racism, peer pressure and cultural identity. But it is let down badly by some wooden acting and some confusing story developments.
The echo of “Smile, Khalifa. Smile” in the dialogue shows promise, as does the decision to stick to a refreshingly downbeat, pessimistic conclusion. The idea deserved better though.
Glaring plot holes also emerge in Bahraini filmmaker Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti’s “A Time To Pray.” Once again, there’s a striking central idea — a heavily pregnant liberal Egyptian lady is stranded with her more conservative Emirati friend and they have to take refuge in a nearby (men-only) mosque. But that idea is undone by clunky storytelling. The duo’s car, for example, has apparently broken down in a “faraway” area, but in one exterior shot it’s clear the mosque is at an intersection of main roads on which several cars are visible along with a number of tall buildings.
While there are some engaging moments, particularly when the two women are huddled in a toilet cubicle while the imam and a few worshipers complete their ablutions, overall the filmmaker seems to have been so excited about tackling a potentially controversial story that he neglected certain tasks that would have told that story in a compelling way.
“Lollipop,” by Hanaa Saleh Alfassi is a genuinely daring film in which a 14-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia reaches puberty (the only color in the black-and-white movie is the red of her menstrual blood) and learns to deal with the discomfort caused by her body’s development, which has caught the leering, sinister eye of the father of one of her schoolmates.
The lead actress gives an eye-catching, convincing performance and Alfassi conveys an empathetic understanding of teenage peer pressure. “Lollipop” will likely garner attention for its focus on a sensitive subject, but — although the film has its flaws — Alfassi shows enough promise to suggest she could become known for more than just headline-generating controversy.
There aren’t many sci-fi films coming out of the region, so “The Remaining Time,” from Emirati director Mohammed Al-Hammadi, is a welcome addition to DIFF’s schedule. Aliens have invaded — and practically obliterated — Earth. Sarah is alone in a room, waiting for her husband, a soldier, to return. Instead, a stranger arrives asking for shelter. The tension builds nicely as the audience begins to realize how vulnerable Sarah has made herself by doing the supposedly right thing and letting him in.
The simplicity of the idea and the single location make this a good example of how short films can tell a compelling story when the filmmaker does not overcomplicate things.
That is a lesson that Saudi filmmaker Hajjar Alnaim does not heed in “Detained,” the story of Lara, a Syrian refugee detained in the US because of her father’s alleged terrorist activities. While the film is nicely shot, with some excellent performances (if you can forgive a propensity for dramatic pauses), it seems Alnaim and her co-writer wanted to cram too much in, leading to some unwieldy dialogue. “I am a well-respected human rights lawyer!” shouts one character, unconvincingly. It is a shame, because, once again, the idea at the heart of “Detained” is a strong one, touching on themes of familial loyalty, patriotism and duty.
In “When The Sky Began To Scream,” a disturbing dystopian tale from Tunisian-Canadian director Kays Mejri, a husband and wife are stranded on a “forgotten road” and set upon by a cultish band of gravediggers. It is not exactly clear why these men have become so insanely violent — “the land is cursed,” says an old crone to the wife at one point — but that makes it all the more intriguing. The married couple, after all, would not know why, either. They just know they need to escape. This is one of those stories where much is left to the viewer’s imagination, and it is all the stronger for it. Haunting imagery abounds in “When The Sky Began To Scream.” Sometimes you do not have to spell everything out.
“Dimmed Light,” a stop-motion animation from Emirati filmmaker Waleed Al-Shehhi, illustrates that point. The seven-minute film’s main “character” is the wick of a shattered lantern trying to put its “home” back together and re-hang it in its proper place in a room that has been devastated by a bomb blast. The poignant final scene does justice to the slow build-up as the camera’s focus gradually expands from the wick to take in the whole room, revealing the full extent of the explosion’s aftermath.
The most successful example of the power of short films in the selection from DIFF seen by Arab News comes from Palestinian filmmaker Ameen Nayfeh. In “The Crossing,” Nayfeh takes a familiar topic — Palestinians trying to cross the border wall to see family on the other side — and addresses familiar themes, including the Israeli occupation, the day-to-day oppression of Palestinians and the assaults on their dignity. However, he does so by focusing on the personal and thereby making it all the more universal and relatable.
Shadi, his sister Maryam and elder brother Mohammed are going to visit their grandparents. It has been four years since Shadi and Maryam have managed to get the relevant permits. At first it seems as though the film is going to be about how, even with those permits, they still will not be allowed to cross. We do see examples of that — the heart-breaking casual cruelty of the border guards contrasted in a nicely understated way with the forbearance of those trying to cross; “Is your son dead?” the guard enquires of one man trying to visit his son in hospital. “No,” he replies. “Then come back tomorrow” — but in fact the denouement of “The Crossing” is not what you expect and the characters’ reactions are beautifully portrayed and captured.
By keeping things simple and making sure the quality of the script and acting does justice to the idea around which it is formed, “The Crossing” shows that the tricky art of making a short film is one that can reward both maker and viewer.


West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

Updated 5 min 28 sec ago
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West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

  • The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle.”
  • The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.

LONDON: London theatergoers used to spectating in comfort are in for a rude awakening after the authors of a play swapped the traditional plush velvet seating for wooden benches and covered the floor with soil to simulate the feel of a migrant camp.
The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle,” whose authors hope their play will stoke debate about migration.
“People often hold strong opinions about this subject because it doesn’t seem to have any immediate answer,” said Joe Murphy, 27, who co-wrote the play.
“Discussion is the only think that is going to get us forward ... and hopefully this play can provide some of that space for debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Co-author Joe Robertson said the pair had “tried to depict both the terrible conditions that existed in the Jungle camp, but also the hope that existed in that place.”
Up to 10,000 people seeking ways to reach Britain used to live in the giant slum before it was cleared by authorities in late 2016.
Immigration remains a major political issue across Europe, as well as in the United States, where the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border has caused an international outcry.
Several European leaders including those of France, Germany, Italy and Austria are to hold talks on Sunday to explore how to stop people from moving around the European Union after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean states of arrival.
Murphy and Robertson, 28, based the script on their experience as volunteers in Calais, where they ran a temporary theater within the camp.
The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.
“There were 25 different nationalities of people all forced to live side by side often on top of each other and the phenomenal story about that place was people did make an effort to come together,” said Robertson.
Theatre-goers are invited to seat at the tables of the camp’s makeshift Afghan café, where the action unfolds.
“The closer you are to the audience the better the message is delivered,” said actor Ammar Hajj Ahmad, who plays one of the leading characters.
Ahmad, from Syria, is one of many actors from a refugee background featured in the play. Several asylum-seekers the authors met in Calais are also part of the cast.
“I am proud of this, I love telling stories ... about the many people who lived in Calais,” said cast-member Mohamed Sarrar, a musician from Sudan who arrived in Britain two years ago.
The play, which premiered at another London theater The Young Vic, last year, runs from July 5 to November.