Al Sidr Environmental Film Festival is returning this year as a two-day programme at NYU Abu Dhabi, presenting a selection of feature narratives, documentaries and short films that emphasise the importance of water in attaining environmental sustainability.
Taking place in the run-up to Cop28, the festival is presenting four feature films as well as several shorts that aim to provide novel, intimate perspectives of the human relationship with the environment. It is being held on Sunday and Monday at The Arts Center at NYUAD, in collaboration with the university as well as the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi. The event is free to attend.
“Cop is about policies and clear steps to change the world. We need to do [them] and they’re urgent,” the festival’s artistic director Nezar Andary says. “But a film festival is creating the awareness, sensibility, emotional landscapes that makes change even more possible.”
Andary says he selected water as a theme after attending a talk at Expo 2020 Dubai, in which one of the speakers underscored that “water is climate change, and climate change is water.”
“I wanted something that’s culturally communicative,” Andary says. “All religions make it sacred. Dirty water is a sign of evil. There are all these metaphors and culture. In film, too, there are all these metaphors of water that have been used by different directors.”
Among the featured films is Everyday Life in a Syrian Village by acclaimed director Omar Amiralay. The 1976 documentary, which won the Interfilm award at the Berlin International Film Festival, is a scathing account of the agricultural and land reforms carried out by the Syrian government. The film was, Andary says, “ahead of its time” and puts a “question mark on building these dams in Syria. It’s also [full of] metaphors of what happens when there’s no water.”
Another highlight is Whispers of Fire and Water by Lubdhak Chatterjee. The 2023 film was nominated for the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. It follows an audio installation artist who visits the largest coal mine in Eastern India. He soon faces a landscape of depleting resources that is embroiled in a complicated sociopolitical system.
“It’s an amazing fiction film,” Andary says.
The First Days by French filmmaker and ethnologist Stephane Breton will also be screening. The documentary came as a result of Breton’s visit to Chile, where the landscape of stone and ocean inspired him. The film aims to evoke a instinctual appreciation for nature and its might.
Films by Arab filmmakers are a strong focus of the festival, particularly when it comes to its short offerings. Drowning Fish by Egyptian documentarian Amir El-Shenawy tells the story of one of the last fishermen in Qarun Lake. The 67-year-old is from the Shakshouk village, where fishing is a vital source of income. The lake, however, has succumbed to issues of pollution and many young fishermen moved to coastal cities across Egypt as a result. The older population, meanwhile, recall lusher memories of the lake.
The Land by Moe Sabbah, meanwhile, examines the Bisri village protests when the Lebanese government revealed plans to build a dangerous dam leading up to the valley. Farmers and shepherds express their fears of losing the land, with which they had developed a cherished relationship. The film highlights the geological dangers of the dam, and the impact its construction would have had. The film draws to a close as the World Bank pulled funding from the dam project, showing how community activism can have marked effects on policy.
The festival is also presenting a selection of minute-long films from two specialised programmes in the Middle East. These include children’s films from Rural Encounters on Environment and Film and others from Dibeen Lab, an initiative founded by director Mahmoud Massad dedicated to training aspiring filmmakers in Jordan.
“They're a way to celebrate and to introduce to the audience different ideas that can maybe be done in UAE in the future,” Andary says. “The one in Lebanon, for instance, combines watching films with hiking and music. It’s a three-day event where people stay in a village in the north of Lebanon at the border with Syria.”
Along with the films, Al Sidr Environmental Film Festival will also host talks that revolve around the event’s theme. Environmentalist Rasha Saleh, founder of the Enta Green initiative, will present a talk on water and activism. Mahmoud Dawoud, a water expert from the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, will speak on strategies of using water for the future.
More information is available at nyuad-artscenter.org