Small but perfectly formed: SFP is back

Sharjah Film Platform is back, spotlighting independent cinema, documentary filmmaking and moving image works that play on new approaches to film and art.

The fifth edition of Sharjah Art Foundation’s annual film festival isn’t overcrowded; small but perfectly formed just about sums it, with a total of just 20 screening sessions. But SFP always offers a diverse mix – indie films from the region and further afield, talks and panel discussions, and juried awards (for the Best Narrative, Best Documentary and Best Experimental categories, winners to be announced on the last day of the festival) which provide the bulk of the 30 or so films being shown.

There’s also the SFP Industry Hub initiative that offers professional development and support to emerging filmmakers. And this year for the first time there’s a little added non-film fun in the form of a performance by the all-female Amal Waqar Trio at the start of the festival and a “networking mixer” with DJs at the end.

The festival runs from 21 to 30 October at Mirage City Cinema, the main venue; Sharjah Institute of Theatrical Arts, which has a few of the screenings; and Gallery 4 of Al Mureijah Art Spaces, the location for the short programme of talks and panel discussions which take place under the title Alt Lens: Hi(stories) and Voices from the Borderline – held in partnership with the US Mission to the UAE and NYU Abu Dhabi’s Division of Arts and Humanities.

The full schedule is here, but SFP5 opens 8pm 21 October at Mirage City Cinema with Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021, above), winner of the Golden Eye at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Threaded together by fictitious letters between two film students who have ended their intercaste relationship, A Night of Knowing Nothing borrows documentary footage to merge the personal and the political – the background is the 2015 student strike at Kapadia’s alma mater, the Film and Television Institute of India, after Modi’s appointment of a right-winger as the Institute’s new chairman. An obsession with filmmaking can often seem introverted and exclusive; but as the Guardian review said, this “kaleidoscopic doc is cinephilia at its best”.

The festival will conclude with another very special film that you probably won’t see in the multiplex – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (2021, below), showing 8pm 29 October at Mirage City Cinema. This is a beautiful and mysterious movie, illuminated by a performance from Tilda Swinton as the Scotswoman temporarily working in Colombia who starts hearing things that no one else does. It’s a characteristically enigmatic piece of work from an artist/director who is known for his realist-mystic masterpieces; this one deservedly won the Cannes Film Festival Jury Award last year. Tickets seem to be by invitation only, sadly.

SFP’s Director in Focus section will honour the Tunisian film director Moufida Tlatli, who sadly died of Covid in last year. Her three features are being screened, including her 1994 breakthrough The Silences of the Palace (8pm 22 October, Mirage City Cinema); on the surface a lyrical study of a woman’s return to an abandoned royal residence, the film tackles themes of exploitation and trauma as experienced across generations of Arab women.

Tlatli followed that with The Season of Men (2000), “a beautifully lucid, compassionate film [and] a powerful and deeply engaging family drama” as The Guardian review put it. The subject is a community on the Tunisian island of Djerba, where the men spend most of their time away working and return only for one month a year … It shows 8pm 27 October at Mirage City Cinema.

Her third film was Nadia et Sarra (2004), a study of relationships between women – between friends, housekeeper/servant, student/teacher, and particularly between mother and daughter, Nadia, a 47-year-old Tunisian academic, appears fulfilled; but as she enters menopause she struggles with tension in her marriage, the physical and psychological symptoms of ageing, and her fraught relationship with her 18-year-old daughter, Sarra, who lives her private life in secret. The screening is 9pm 27 October at Mirage City Cinema.

Through a collaborative initiative with the US Mission to the UAE, SFP5 will also present Cherien Dabis’s Amreeka (2009). This is a heartwarming drama that adds a poignantly comic twist to the hope, distress and pain of the immigrant experience. Muna and her son Fadi luck out in a Green Card lottery in the early 2000s and move from Palestine to America. The bad news is that the Iraq ear has just started and anti-Arab sentiment runs high … Amreeka isn’t simply a story of American prejudice, though there’s enough of that, but also of the good to be found in the States. It’s often very funny, too.

Amreeka (above) shows at 9pm on 28 October at Sharjah Institute of Theatrical Arts, which sadly means a clash with Nadia et Sarra – films only get one screening in the festival.

In addition, this year’s festival will screen more than 25 films in narrative, documentary and experimental genres, all of which were selected through an international open call. The programme will also include the world premiere of Mariam Alserkal and Maaria Sayed’s Unveiling Selma (2022), a story about an Emirati woman rediscovering her womanhood which received the SFT Short Film Production Grant in 2021.

To celebrate the opening of the festival, the Amal Waqar Trio will perform on 21 October in the Al Mureijah courtyard; the celebrated young Omani oud player Amal Waqar is joined by Lamam Kassem (percussion) and Rachelle Ghanem (bass). That gig is free. And also free is the networking mixer with live DJ sets on 29 October at Courtyard C, Al Mureijah Art Spaces.

Individual tickets are AED 30 (students AED 20); there’s also a Festival Pass at AED 120 (students AED 80) that gives access to all screenings. They’re on sale at the festival venues or can be booked online.

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