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

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.

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”