Palm Springs International Shortfest: eight films from the Arab world to compete at 2021 event

Films from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Palestine will take part in the largest short film festival in North America, which kicks off this month

'Al-Sit' is a Sudanese short film competing at the Palm Springs Shortfest this year. Courtesy Palm Springs Shortfest
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The Palm Springs International Shortfest returns to the Palm Springs Cultural Centre this month.

Running from June 22 to 28, the festival is already an important date in the industry calendar. It's the largest short film festival in North America, a designated awards-qualifying event for the Oscars, Baftas and their Spanish equivalent the Goyas, and offers prizes of up to $25,000 for winners.

This year, however, Shortfest takes on even greater significance as the first festival in California to hold all of its screenings in cinemas, albeit with limited capacity, and stringent cleaning and mask-wearing policies in place, after more than a year of online festivals brought about by the pandemic.

Eight films from the Arab world will be among the 295 titles screening at this year's event, which includes 32 world premieres.

One Canadian film that deserves special mention is Ain't No Time for Women from Tunisian-Canadian director Sarra El Abed, which is set in Tunis and features dialogue in Arabic and French. This intimate documentary is set in a Tunis hair salon that becomes an arena for political discussion on the eve of the country's presidential elections. The chaos – and frequent humour – of the lively discussions often mirror the turmoil of Tunisia's democracy.

Here's a closer look at the eight Arab films competing this year.

'I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face' (Egypt)

Sameh Alaa's tale of a young man undertaking a treacherous journey to be reunited with his love has already picked up a clutch of awards on its festival journey so far, not least the short film Palme d'Or at Cannes 2020.

I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face became the first Egyptian short to be nominated and to win the top Cannes prize.

It heads to Palm Springs next, where it will compete for the Best of the Festival Award and Young Cineastes Award.

'The Promised' (Egypt)

A scene from 'The Promised'. Courtesy Palm Springs Shortfest
A scene from 'The Promised'. Courtesy Palm Springs Shortfest

Ahmed El Ghoneimy's documentary details the tension between the government-appointed guards who watch over the historic Fustat site in Old Cairo and local residents.

The film will screen in the festival's City Symphony section, featuring titles about life in cities around the world, and compete for the Best Documentary Short prize. The film, which was also selected at the Berlinale last year, is El Ghoneimy's fifth short.

'What We Don't Know About Mariam' (Egypt)

Director Morad Mostafa began 2020 by premiering Henet Ward at France's seminal Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, the world's biggest, in January.

He began 2021 in a similar manner, debuting What We Don't Know About Mariam at the same event before bringing it to Palm Springs, where it will surely be a challenger for the Best Live Action Short Over 15 Minutes prize.

The film centres on Mariam, who goes to the hospital with her family after suffering from severe pain in her abdomen. After an examination, tensions escalate between Mariam and her husband.

'Drought' (Lebanon)

A scene from 'Drought'. Courtesy Palm Springs Shortfest
A scene from 'Drought'. Courtesy Palm Springs Shortfest

The only Lebanese film at this year's festival, Remi Itani's Drought follows Carine, a Beirut property agent who frequently finds herself in empty apartments waiting for clients to show up. She creates an intimate relationship with these empty homes that echo her own loneliness. Finally, she decides to go outdoors and look for a physical experience.

The film will compete for Best Live Action Short Under 15 Minutes.

'Nour Shams' (Saudi Arabia)

Saudi Arabia continues to establish itself as a regional production hub, with two films in competition in Palm Springs this year.

Shams's only son desperately wants to leave Saudi Arabia to try his luck at becoming a rapper. Shams, however, is a little more traditional and simply wants her golden boy to settle down and have a family. Director and screenwriter Faiza Ambah's film will compete for Best Live Action Short Over 15 minutes.

'The Girls Who Burnt the Night' (Saudi Arabia)

When two Saudi sisters are refused permission to go to the grocery store while helping their mother prepare for an engagement party, things escalate surprisingly quickly.

Sara Mesfer's film picked up a special mention after its debut at last year's Cairo International Film Festival, and will compete in California for the Best Live Action Short Over 15 Minutes and Best Student International Short prizes.

'Al-Sit' (Sudan)

Suzannah Mirghani's Al-Sit tells the story of a 15-year-old Sudanese girl called Nafisa who's torn between the love of her life in her cotton-farming village and her parents' plans for an arranged marriage abroad.

The film has already picked up a host of awards on its festival journey, including Clermont-Ferrand's Canal+ Award and Busan's Jury Prize. It features in Palm Springs' Women on Top section, where it will compete for the Best Live Action Short Over 15 Minutes and Young Cineastes prizes.

'Borekas' (Palestine)

Saleh Saadi's semi-autobiographical film is named after the popular Palestinian snack his father would treat him to on a weekend. The film centres on a father and son granted an unexpected opportunity to bond after their car breaks down on the way to the airport. The film is Saadi's first and competes for the Best LGBT+ Short prize.