Kaleem Aftab, director of international programming at the Red Sea Film Festival, has cast his net wide in selecting the 14 films in the festival’s International Short Film Competition program.
Aimed at attracting emerging talent from across Africa, Asia and the Islamic world, the section includes fiction, animation and documentary in films average 15-20 minutes long, but may be as short as a couple of minutes, or as long as an hour.
With films ranging from Iranian director Farnoosh Samadi’s Iran-French co-production, “Titanic” – which takes a darkly comic look at Iranian film censors confused by how to interpret new regulations – to Kazakh filmmaker Shugyla Serzhan’s “The Late Wind,” about a young pregnant woman suddenly abandoned by her boyfriend, the section pushes boundaries of subjects that are already part of the public conversation in the countries from which it selects.
“One of the biggest things about these films is that a lot of them are about the gray area – what is right and wrong and where we are today and how capitalism has changed everything,” Aftab says.
“In ‘Titanic’ – shot in one room – the director plays with ideas that may challenge censors: What is the nature of a kiss? Is this kiss a friendship kiss? Is it romantic? How do we tell the difference? How do we draw boundaries?”
The edginess of some of the films in selection reflect the broadness of both the members of the selection committee and the geographical reach of the program, which accepts films from directors who qualified as being African, Asian or Islamic filmmakers – even if they live in Europe or the U.S., he adds.
There are films from Indonesia – Kevin Rahardio’s “Accidentally Intentional” about a religious 16-year-old watching dirty videos for the first time only to find his audio has connected to his mother’s in-car Bluetooth transmitter – and Armenia – Tigran Agavelyan’s “The Courier,” which focuses on the moral dilemma faced when a man needs to urgently raise money to save his wife’s life. Should he steal the cash, or find an honest way to raise it? Does he have time?
And there are films from a Saudi director living in the U.S.: Ethar Bammer’s “In Between,” about a twentysomething woman overwhelmed by societal expectation of her behavior, as well as films from Islamic countries, including Pakistani director Mahnoor Euceph’s “Eid Mubarak,” about a little girl’s bid to save the life of a cute little goat chosen for slaughter for the religious holiday.
Sub-Saharan Africa is well represented with Rwandan director Kantarama Gahigiri’s “Terra Mater – Motherland” – about the damage capitalism and waste wreaks on the environment, and Imran Hamdulay’s South African heart-breaking social drama “The Wait,” about a pensioner caught up in the bureaucracy of a police station queue.
Bringing such fare to Saudi Arabia, where all screenings are open to the public, is part of the mission of a festival that sees itself as a cultural bridge between the Islamic world, Asia and Africa.
“It is about the way different cultures react in different ways and the similarities across the board,” says Aftab – who grew up in a conservative Muslim Pakistani family in London – before becoming a filmmaker and film critic.
Saudi Arabia is a fascinating country to explore the cinema of the festival’s wide geographic region precisely because it has changed so rapidly over the past few years, he says.
For decades until 2018 cinema was banned and restrictions on women were strenuously policed. Today women can drive, go out in public without wearing a scarf covering their hair (which in Iran, for example, is still forbidden and has been at the heart of recent social unrest there) and go to the cinema alone or with men.
“Saudi society has changed dramatically. The position of women and what they were able to do has been transformed,” Aftab says. “The cinema culture here is very new and young… and one that needs to be encouraged. That is why this festival are highlighting films that are outside the wider culture of filmgoing.”
It is also about giving the makers of short films a chance to grow artistically – all directors are invited to the festival’s Talent Base (Dec. 6-7) where they can meet established cinema professionals and attend workshops.