Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2011: Short dreams

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Hisham Wyne reports from the Short Film Competition at ADFF

Short films have always had their place in the history of film. In particular, 20th-century cinema had the feature attraction preceded by shorts. These were replaced by ads and coming attractions by the commercial realities of Hollywood, where every second of reel time must be monetised.

But the short film is far from dead, particularly in the Middle East and the UAE, where it fits in well with the local tradition of storytelling. Alice Kharoubi, Project Manager and selector for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival's (ADFF) Short Film Competition, believes there's increasing funding available, and also more encouragement for new directors.

Interesting viewpoints

The International Short Film Competition at the ADFF showcased 31 films from the world over, ranging from three minutes to more than thirty. "We've chosen films that offer interesting viewpoints from a variety of sociocultural reference points, and ideas we believe our audiences will appreciate," Kharoub said. The showcased films were at a high level, both conceptually and in terms of quality. "In previous years, some of the shorts we've shown at ADFF have gone on to win Oscar nominations. Many of the directors have gone on to expand their repertoire and make full-length features," she noted.

"The UAE market is relatively new to the idea of short films, but short films do well here," she said. "They have the advantage of offering interesting viewpoints from a gamut of sources, and encouraging the audience down the corridors of romance, comedy, drama, tragedy and dreamlike surrealism."

An excellent example of a surreal, dream-like sequence was Jean Sebastien Chauvin's And They Climbed The Mountain with a running time of thirty-three minutes. A couple is stranded in the middle of what could be utopia, with pristine landscapes that are lovingly explored through wide-angle shots. Yet they find a phone — the most alien of artefacts in such a deserted paradise — which leads to palpable dread and a sense of impending misfortune.

Simple idea

Director Chauvin says his inspiration for a film usually comes from a simple idea that he then adds layers of complexity to. "In my film, the starting point is a situation the couple find themselves in — of finding a phone in the middle of nowhere. The entire movie revolves around this basic tenet."

Director Marwan Khneisser presented Short Memory, a powerful critique of civilian life and death, and the disproportionate firepower used in Israel's bombardment of Lebanon in 2006. Talking about the film's abrupt yet haunting ending, Khneisser said, "I made my film based on one of the most heartless incidents occurring during the 2006 war. I wanted people to be aware of the nature of such war crimes [committed by Israel]." The film offered a charming snapshot of urban life in cramped quarters before war inevitably disrupted all. Khneisser believes the vertical nature of his shots is an ideal complement to the lively yet claustrophobic nature of Beirut life.

Common yet complex

Norway's Henning Roenlund was another director whose work featured in the ADFF Short Film Competition. His film A Marriage narrated the tale of a Russian woman marrying a Norwegian man, and is a study in interjecting nuance into stereotype.

"Such marriages are fairly commonplace, due in part to high Russian immigration, and come with their own baggage of stereotyping. The woman is often described as opportunistic, or the man as looking for cheap gratification. Of course, real life is far more ambiguous, and my film tries to examine these complexities."

For Laila Bouzid, director of Tunisian film Mkhobbi Fi Kobba, inspiration for a film can often be a case of identifying a true story and building a rich narrative around that. Her moving film depicted the sexist standards and violence often inherent to patriarchal society.

Kharroubi has been Project Manager for ADFF's Short Film Competition for the past five year. She's seen interest grow in her section, and noted that short films are becoming more commercially accepted. The ADFF is capitalising on this by adding new award categories. "This year, we've added the award category for Best Producer from the Arab World to go with the Best Producer internationally."

Broadcasting

She believes the next step is for broadcast TV to realise the viability of broadcasting short films. "We've recently worked with OSN to broadcast some short films, and we hope the trend will continue. Introducing short films to TV audiences will give them a greater diversity of entertainment, and help directors become better known," she said.

The short film can be a platform that is rewarding for both audience and filmmakers. Its truncated nature means less time and place to tell stories, which helps directors distil narrative down to basics. For audiences, the short film can produce ideas scintillating yet simple, capable of exploding with pristine clarity in the mind — rather like the coruscating light bulbs that populate Juan Pablo Zaramella's short film Luminaris. From the funny to the harsh, surreal to the pertinent, short films need not pander to Hollywood's often vacuous commerciality just yet. As Director Nash Edgerton of Bear put it, "Most of my short films are borne of a simple repetitive thought or dream. I make films to share that thought with others."

— Hisham Wyne is UAE-based freelance writer