Among the most interesting events taking place on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche as part of the citywide Yasalam programme is a festival that began in a cafe in Sydney almost two decades ago. Tropfest may now be considered the world’s biggest short film festival, an annual event that in Australia has launched the careers of numerous filmmakers, but when it began back in 1993 it was a somewhat different affair.
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“I started it myself with a screening of a short film I had made,” says John Polson, the festival’s founder. “I expected about a dozen people to show up just from the cast and crew, but when I got there that night there were about 200 people.”
From this, an idea was born to start a short-film festival. "The first year 1,000 came, the next 7,000," says Polson. Now, Tropfest attracts a live audience of some 150,000, is broadcast live on television and is one of the most successful channels on YouTube. Major film names have emerged from the festival. Sam Worthington, recently seen romancing blue Na'vi aliens in Avatar, won the Best Actor award at Tropfest 2001.
And this Friday, having already expanded to the US, south-east Asia and China, Tropfest lands in Abu Dhabi for the inaugural Tropfest Arabia.
Aspiring filmmakers from across the Middle East and north Africa were invited to send in their entries by the end of September, and in October the judging panel – which includes among others the Where Do We Go Now? director Nadine Labaki, the Egyptian producer Mohammed Hefzy and the UAE's Nayla Al Khaja – sat down to select the 12 shortlisted finalists to be premiered at the event.
Egypt – perhaps predictably – dominates the list announced in mid-October, contributing six of the 12 finalists. There are two entries from Iraq, with the UAE, Oman, Morocco and Lebanon sharing the remaining spots. Whoever is chosen this Friday as the overall winner will be given US$12,500 (Dh46,000), a trip to Los Angeles to meet film executives and a place on the judging panel of the next Tropfest in Australia.
“Our ambition is for it to have a really big impact,” says Polson. “Tropfest helps provide a platform for people to show what they can do in front of an audience. That’s what it’s become in Australia and that’s what we hope it becomes in Abu Dhabi.”
Those watching the films at this weekend’s event should notice one small similarity between them (aside from length). To make filmmakers produce their shorts especially for Tropfest, the festival introduced a “signature item”, something to be included in the film that can be interpreted in whichever way the director wants. Over the years in Australia they’ve had a gherkin, a coffee bean and the number nine. For the first Tropfest Arabia, it is a star.
But this did not mean that those submitting films needed to go out and buy a glitteringly expensive prop in the shape of a star. For Polson, Tropfest is about demonstrating your talent, not your wealth. “We don’t care how big your budget is,” he says. “Many times over the years a film that cost $50 has beaten out a film that cost $10,000. This is about the idea and how well you can execute it.”
The last winner of Tropfest New York cost $40 to make.
Short-filmmaking across the UAE has been gathering force in recent years, with the Emirates Film Competition providing a platform for aspiring filmmakers since 2001. The Dubai International Film Festival’s Muhr Emirati Awards have also been celebrating the talent of storytellers from the country, while the Gulf Film Festival helps link up filmmakers and provide them with support to develop their ideas. But with Tropfest, emerging talent from the region has a real chance to tap into an international market and to have millions of eyes looking at something they have produced.
“Some of the most successful films in the past few years in Australia have come from people who might never have been exposed if they hadn’t been a finalist in Tropfest. If you’re a finalist, anybody who’s anybody sees that film, whether it’s live on the night or on TV,” says Polson.
And although 150,000 people may struggle to cram on to the Corniche this weekend, the first Tropfest Arabia event should be one to watch out for if you are keen on films. Who knows? The next Sam Worthington may emerge, or perhaps a director who goes on to become one of the region’s leading names. Some of the films may not be to your taste, but if you’re worried about heading down without knowing exactly what it is you’ll be watching, bear in mind that each entry is only seven minutes long.
The 12 short films selected as finalists in Tropfest Arabia will be shown on Friday starting at 7.30pm at Abu Dhabi’s Al Sahil Beach as part of the Yasalam activities. The winner will be picked live on the night
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