Local cinema thrives at global film festivals
Several film festivals have announced their return for this year, with most of them going hybrid to keep up with protocol and maintain safety through digital transformation. What’s also new is the wide variety of local films making the rounds, going on to win recognition for their innovative storytelling and diverse content. Global as it gets, this means a farther reach for local cinema and a growing potential for new heights to scale. Three shortlisted and award-winning industry professionals tell us what this means for local creators, how local cinema has changed over the years and why they miss in- person events
AFTER HAVING WORLD PREMIERED IN THE OFFICIAL COMPETITION AT THE 42ND CAIRO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, AMIR RAMSES’ FILM, CURFEW WAS RECENTLY ALSO SCREENED AT THE 24TH SHANGHAI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL. THE AWARD-WINNING FEATURE FILM ALSO TOOK PART IN THE JERUSALEM ARAB FILM FESTIVAL AND THE PUNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, INDIA.
A FILMMAKER WITH SIX YEARS OF EXPERIENCE, THE GIRLS WHO BURNED THE NIGHT IS ONE OF JAWAHER’S MOST RECENT PROJECTS AS A PRODUCER. THE FILM RECENTLY PARTICIPATED IN THE PALM SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL SHORTFEST AND HAS ALSO BEEN A PART OF THE TORONTO ARAB FILM FESTIVAL AND THE CAIRO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.
BASED IN JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA, SARA IS A DIRECTOR WITH A BACHELOR’S DEGREE IN CINEMATIC ART FROM EFFAT UNIVERSITY. IN ADDITION TO HER WORK AS A DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER AT VICE, SHE HAS ALSO BEEN PART OF SEVERAL LOCAL AND INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVALS. SHE WROTE AND DIRECTED HER SHORT FILM TITLED THE GIRLS WHO BURNED THE NIGHT IN 2019.
FROM ATTENDING IN-PERSON FESTIVALS TO HYBRID FORMATS, WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE BEEN LIKE?
Amir: Well, I have to say the weirdest part was getting used to hybrid formats. I never expected it. My physical event felt like we had all acquired some sort of a collective agoraphobia. It took me a while to get back on track again. However, professionally, hybrid formats did the job. Yet, for me a festival has always been this unplanned day, where you meet someone with a coffee, chat and hear about a film, or discuss a panel while standing in a queue. You just cannot orchestrate that in a hybrid event. This is where connections are made, ideas shared on ground and not on a Zoom window.
Sara: Each has its own experience, which makes it special in its own way. I personally prefer the traditional way of screening a film at in-person festivals. I love the experience of wearing comfy clothes, getting a cup of coffee and attending many films throughout the day. Then having the chance to actually meet the filmmakers and discuss films with them. Festivals are one of my favourite places to be in. Yet, the virtual experience has been nice as well. It is less hectic, gives you more space, as well as time to be part of it and continue your daily routine.
Jawaher: Of course attending festivals in person makes it more special and rewarding. I will always prefer normal inperson festivals for the whole experience they have to offer.
HOW HAS THE ARAB FILM INDUSTRY EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?
Amir: It is difficult to consider Arab cinema under one umbrella. There is a very strong Arab arthouse movement led by independent filmmakers, over the last decade. We have seen how fruitful it has proven to be at international festivals and it will keep flourishing in my opinion. There is mainstream cinema in countries like Egypt, or Lebanon on a smaller scale. What worries me though is the lack of films, that can fall under both umbrellas. Back in the 90s, acclaimed filmmakers gave big artistic hits, while collaborating with big stars including Youssef Chahine, Yousry Nasrallah, Daoud Abdelsayed and Khairy Beshara among others. They made both – artistic and audience friendly films. I think without some sort of fusion between arthouse, underground and mainstream, none of these two branches can grow independently from the other.
Sara: I have always been fond of Arab cinema, as an audience. It is like me on screen and greatly relatable. They look like me and speak my language, especially when we have the same social, economical and political struggle. This is a very special feeling I do not feel with other cinemas. Yet it has been hard and it is still hard to make a film, or sell at the box office. The quantity of films we have today is not helping the industry to grow and experience more. But it is getting better and that is the most important thing. Looking forward to see the industry in a better place.
Jawaher: Honestly, I want to talk about Saudi films in comparison with the Arab industry. After Jeddah nights, organised by the Red Sea Film Festival Foundation, we watched two feature films and both of them finally raised the standards. Today, I can say we have decent films that can compete with Arab films and industries, with histories of their own. In general, Arab industries including Egyptians, Lebanese and Tunisians have all gone beyond to reach for the world. Arab films have been showcased at Cannes, won awards and even been nominated for
the Oscars, several years in a row. I wish Saudi fi lms can achieve this as well.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR FILM AND HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE STORY?
Sara: The idea for The Girls Who Burned the Night came from a certain feeling, that had been in my mind for a while – that of wanting and not getting. I was curious about how you have to lose many things to get these simple desires fulfilled. How on the way of getting these simple things you may have to lose many things, leading to anger and madness. From this standpoint, I created my first character, then came the opposite of her which is her sister. Then I created the environment, which I consider similar to a character in the film who push es everything to the edge.
Amir: Curfew was born in 2 phases. Firstly, in 2013, under the real curfew we had, where I had almost became claustrophobic. I kept panicking to the idea of being locked somewhere, with someone you don’t want to face. I thought of making a film on that fear. Secondly, in 2017, as child assault cases were increasingly surfacing within families, I was absolutely shocked – mainly by the silence around it. People would start talking when other crimes occurred, but it was like a certain part of our society did not consider child abuse to be a crime. I hated that and felt the need to break that silence.
ARE THERE ANY CHALLENGES/ OPPORTUNITIES ASSOCIATED WITH THE SHORT FILM FORMAT?
Sara: Working with short films gives you more space to experiment, in order to find your voice and style. More importantly, it can be done independently, which gives you the freedom to make all the decisions. On the other hand, this freedom comes with a price. The challenges with independent films, or micro-budget films is uncountable. But at the end of the day, it teaches you the most important aspects of your film.
Jawaher: Honestly, it is very challenging especially in our country, to get a good funding for short films. This is because usually short films do not make income. Short films are still not given much importance in our country, although everyone here started with shorts. Once they get the funds, they go and do a feature, although they may not be ready yet.
Short films can open up more opportunities to learn from international producers, because usually you get to be at many festivals with shorts. That is how you get to build relations, amp up your resume and raise opportunities to receive funds for the first feature, or later on – funds from your own country. The knowledge of short films makes filmmakers more mature in taking decisions and prepares them for the first feature.
HOW HAS THE GROWTH OF STREAMING PLATFORMS HELPED LOCAL FILMS GET NOTICED INTERNATIONALLY?
Jawaher: The film is watched by a much more diverse audience.
Amir: I guess we had a phenomenal reach, thanks to the film launching on OSN. It was released in the heat of the second COVID wave, hence, we were not lucky in theatres. However, when the film came out on OSN, we were tr ending within twenty-four houses on social media and got some great feedback. My in box was filled with people writing and discussing the film. I was amazed by the response and felt happy to have touched the real audience.
ACCORDING TO YOU, WHAT SHOULD LOCAL FILMMAKERS FOCUS ON TO GO BEYOND BORDERS?
Sara: To be true to themselves.
Jawaher: Knowledge. We need to keep learning, attend more film schools and give more time. Nothing comes immediately, especially here in Saudi. We need time to make more films, in order to grow. Nothing comes easy. Each step, no matter how simple it looks, takes time to be perfected.
Amir: Don’t think of a specific topic. On the contrary, I always feel you need to go beyond borders to make films. Some may have a short success with exotic topics, but continuity has always been a result of making films out of personal passion.