Short Circuit

Melissa Gronlund on the 2020 Sharjah Film Platform

Pushpendra Singh, The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs, 2020, digital video, color, sound, 110 minutes.

THE SHARJAH FILM PLATFORM—the third edition of Sharjah Art Foundation’s film festival—opened earlier this month, in a country whose low coronavirus cases have allowed it to resume regular, though masked operation. But the weeklong platform seemed like a telegram from another time—or a harbinger of what’s to come. Whenever life returns to normal, and whatever that normal is, our viewing habits will have changed significantly from the cinematic paradigm, with its collective, focused, and non-serial engagement with singular subjects. The festival’s focus on shorts gestured toward the freedom in form and length made possible by streaming. At the same time, the popularity of its online screenings suggested that the shift to on-demand viewing might be more than circumstantial. 

Showing more than sixty films, the Platform is global in scope, though as one might expect there is a relative focus on films from the Arab and South Asian region. Shorts, whether narrative, documentary, or experimental, provided some of the strongest works. The three-channel Up at Night, by the Congolese director Nelson Makengo, shows the DRC through the prism of its lack of electricity, with a population confined to live in the dark. Reports of delays of a new hydroelectric dam are mediated through screens that glow like searchlights in the midst of the blackouts, metaphors for the dearth of opportunity among those who watch them. In Prophesy, directed by Julieta Juncadella, three teenagers in Morocco motor by boat to a deserted island, where they smoke and dance, infused by the new and precarious freedoms they feel themselves seizing. Filaments of hierarchy grow and stretch between the friends based on who is attractive, who is clever, who dares most, in an image of life on the cusp of manhood.

Nelson Makengo, Up at Night, 2019, digital video, color, sound, 20 minutes.

The festival also secured a number of MENA (Middle East and North Africa) and UAE regional premieres, such as the standout features The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs and Eyimofe: This Is My Desire. The poetic, painterly Shepherdess, directed by Pushpendra Singh, sets a love triangle amid the political instability of Kashmir and Jammu and its age-old, ostensibly immutable forests. Eyimofe, a gorgeous debut by the Nigerian brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri, uses 16 mm to draw out the changeable colors of their native Lagos, whose inhabitants are torn between loyalties and aspirations for a better life abroad.

The opening night was meant to show the three films that had been supported by the 2020 Short Film Production Grant of $30,000, which was shared among Nadira Amrani, Soha Shukayr, and Pelin Pan and Anton Vidokle. However, owing to the coronavirus, Amrani’s and Vidokle and Pan’s projects were represented instead by screened comments and discussions among the filmmakers. The workaround was only partially successful—aspiring programmers, I can confirm Q&As are best kept at the end of evenings—and the audience looked with relief to the condensed drama of the masterful Once Upon a Revolution, by the Lebanese Shukayr. Opening on a couple lying on top of the Egg, an unfinished cinema in Beirut that has been occupied by protesters, the film uses the Lebanese Revolution as a set for the enduring tussle between violent and nonviolent action—as well as, somewhat deflatingly, the equally enduring trope of the sacrificial female, mopping up the mess made by men.

Most of the major screenings took place at Mirage City Cinema, the foundation’s regular open-air viewing space. Other venues were a mall near the American University of Sharjah, about twenty minutes outside of the city center, and the Flying Saucer, which reopened in September as the newest permanent addition to the Sharjah Art Foundation’s sweep of galleries, and most of the films were available to watch online. There was little red-carpet glamour, though Sharjah isn’t the place for it anyway. The entire city is a soft beige, from the 1980s concrete tower blocks to the shalwar kameez of the city’s sizable Pakistani population, and what is not beige to begin with is blanketed in dust. (A fascinating exhibition up during the platform, at the design space 1971, discussed the influence of Egyptian architecture on Sharjah.) Sharjah is known among the emirates for its independence of thought, and the film platform continued this head-down mentality with its industry section, which included pitching sessions, workshops, and the Short Film Production Grants.

Soha Shukayr, Once Upon a Revolution, 2020, digital video, color, sound, 19 minutes.

The lack of glitz was also fitting for the films’ subject matter, which reflected on difficult issues such as migration, war, revolution, and marginalized histories. The feature-length Epicentro, by the Austrian director Hubert Sauper, looks at the reality of Cuba today, as Cubanos find that they have become Instagram fodder for a rapacious new tourist industry. In I Have Seen Nothing, I Have Seen All, which won the platform’s prize for Best Documentary Short, the Syrian filmmaker Yaser Kassab confronts the continuing heartbreak of his native country, as he and his parents, in Sweden and Aleppo, negotiate moving his brother’s grave from its temporary site in one of Aleppo’s public parks.  

The recent Oscar nominations of Arab films such as Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum and Waad al-Kateab’s For Sama have buoyed the region’s aspirations for independent cinema and its capacity to tell its own stories from the ground up. But despite strong industry support in the UAE, there is still a generally low turnout for alternative screenings, as the Dubai film curator and artist Hind Mezaina regularly documents. With this in mind, there was a feeling of gratitude that the festival went ahead anyway. Abu Dhabi Film Festival was scrapped in 2015 and Dubai International Film Festival in 2018, in spite of initial reports of it switching to a biennial format, and in some sense the Sharjah Art Foundation has stepped into the breach. This third edition, taking place amid the pandemic, supports not just the general project of building an audience for independent cinema in the UAE but also the filmmakers working globally, as opportunities elsewhere are curtailed.

The Sharjah Film Platform 2020 ran from November 14 to November 21.