I was chatting to a young, UAE-based filmmaker recently and the subject of how difficult it is to screen his short films to an audience outside of festival periods came up. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this complaint and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.
It reminded me of when I was a kid going to the cinema in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a short film before the main feature was standard procedure and I had to wonder why this had fallen out of favour.
Admittedly, they weren’t always great; the fact that I can only really remember one (about a scary hooded chap on a horse) in any great detail would perhaps suggest that maybe they were often poor, but I wasn’t really of an age to be taking notes. But at least short filmmakers were given an audience.
Of course, the most obvious cause of the demise of shorts in cinemas isn’t quality, it’s money. In the days of the homogenous, corporate multiplex, every second that can be devoted to the latest global credit-card campaign or international soft drink promotion is crucial dirhams in the bank and that doesn’t leave much room for shorts.
The cinemas of my childhood were very different places – all faded glory, crumbling walls and a general sense of relief at still existing, faced with the growth of VHS.
Many of my childhood cinema trips were taken with my granddad, whose local cinema in industrial northern England was the very image of fading art-deco beauty. My grandma would unfailingly have tea and sandwiches waiting for our return, but I distinctly remember one weekend when the cinema was screening a Superman triple bill to celebrate the release of Superman III. Ever the shrewd businessman, my granddad had spotted that it was the same price as a single film, so by the time we returned home about nine hours later and well after my bed time, my grandma was already frantically ringing other family members and the police, while the sandwiches had seen rather better days.
Even as a teenager, my local cinema was far from the gleaming consumerist paradises of today. The single-screen venue closest to my school, optimistically called The Ritz, was owned by a local eccentric and also housed a penny arcade museum. On days when the museum was busy, it wasn’t unusual to find that the hard-pressed, and minimal, staff had simply left an honesty box by the sweets and drinks while they carried on manning their posts elsewhere.
In the course of writing this, I checked on the status of The Ritz and was unsurprised to learn it had closed in 1994. But, of course, things change and it’s not all misty-eyed nostalgia. My last trip to Vox in Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates featured comfy seats, 7.1 surround sound and a giant, high-resolution screen that the less salubrious cinemas of my youth could only dream of – no pixelated Marty McFly, sound from the bottom of a bathtub or projectionist forgetting to change the (digital) reel here. But perhaps that’s all the more reason to allow today’s filmmakers’ work to be shown on them now and then without the motivation created by the UAE’s film festivals.