When Destin Cretton first came up with the idea for Short Term 12, he only intended to submit it as a thesis project to complete his film school studies.
The 20-minute film, shot on the cheap with a budget of just $3,000 (Dh11,019), was set in a foster care facility and drew on his own experiences of working as a supervisor in a similar unit for two years before he signed up for a masters in film and new media at San Diego State University, California.
Yet that university project has springboarded Cretton’s career and propelled him into the starry echelons of Hollywood, with whispers of a role directing the Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence in the upcoming lavish period drama The Glass Castle.
The newly released feature-length version of Short Term 12, meanwhile, is rumoured to be an Oscar contender, with glowing reviews and one critic raving that it was a “shining example of what cinema is all about”.
While 34-year-old Cretton might be the exception rather than the rule, his success has given hope this week to a burgeoning generation of filmmakers in the UAE, who share his passion for encapsulating the human experience on screen and dream of following in his footsteps.
“I never thought my film was going to go anywhere, but making shorts was extremely valuable for me,” the director told an audience at Abu Dhabi Film Festival this week, where he held a masterclass on making the transition from shorts to full-length films.
“If you are making a short film because you want to get rich, then don’t do it, nor if you think it is going to jump-start your entire career.
“The reason I make short films, and hope I continue to, is because it is a great place to experiment and try things you have not done before.
“It is never frustrating if all you are doing it for is to get better and to learn and make something you are proud of.”
Among western audiences and outside the festival circuit, short films might be seen as a mere stepping stone to a career in moviemaking. But in the UAE, they have long been celebrated as an art form in themselves, particularly as the foundations for a film industry are only just being laid and funding for feature-length movies has been historically lacking – and is still hard to come by.
The Emirates’ established feature movie directors, Nawaf Al Janahi and Ali Mostafa, who were behind Sea Shadow and City of Life respectively, both spent years making shorts after leaving film school as a means to practise their skills before attempting their first full-length films.
The Emirates Film Competition (EFC), a celebration of shorts, was the forerunner to the ADFF, which is now in its seventh year; indeed, the festival’s director, Ali Al Jabri, together with Al Janahi, were two of the trio of friends who started the EFC in frustration at the lack of support for the cinema industry (the third was Masoud Amralla Al Ali, the artistic director of Dubai International Film Festival).
They collated 58 short films in 2001 and, today, the competition is still going strong as part of the festival, with 49 entries from 36 countries.
Abu Dhabi’s Rafed Al Harthi and co-director Ray Haddad won the top prize for best short film for Feeding Five Hundred, which follows the life of a cat lover determined to feed up to 500 felines a day. And the Emirati filmmaker Hamad Al Awar won Best Emirati Film for his short Daddy ABC, about a young father learning how raising children is hard work.
Of all the entrants, some have shot their movies on hand-held cameras or equipment in their homes, enlisting friends to play the key characters; some are film students shooting for homework; others have invested in state-of-the-art technology, assembled crews or hired professionals to edit and score their footage at their own expense.
What they share with Cretton is a love of cinema’s power to transform, educate and entertain. And, like many directors, that all begins with the short, a place where they can hone their craft, learn new skills – and just as importantly, make their mistakes before moving to a costly set and full-scale production.
For Faisal Hashmi, 23, a Dubai-based filmmaker of Pakistani origin, his six short films are his calling card. His one-minute silent film called Perfect Living was introduced to an international audience when it was picked up by Abu Dhabi Film Commission in 2011 and taken to Cannes.
“It was about a guy fantasising about living a rich life,” he says. “To tell a story in a minute is a real challenge. I did not have a budget, so I used locations which were free and shot with my own Canon DSLR.
“Short films are the best way to learn the ropes of filmmaking. I keep trying out different genres. The things I have learnt by practising, no film school could have taught me.”
Aisha Abdullah, 24, an Emirati producer for a media firm who has previously won awards in regional film festivals, based her entry Against the Wind on another inspiring Emirati woman.
Her documentary focuses on Fatima Al Ali, a 23-year-old sports photographer and hockey player breaking cultural boundaries by venturing onto the sports pitch.
“When she went to the stadium for the first time, everyone stared,” says Abdullah. “I felt she had a good story and wanted my society to understand that Emirati women can do anything.”
Unlike his peers, Maitham Al Musawi from Oman, who has made films for as little as Dh50, is happy to make short films as a hobby and entered Crossing in the EFC. The 27-year-old orthopaedic surgeon feels that there is too much focus on feature films.
“I am frustrated, because there is always this talk about making feature films on the festival circuit, as if short films are insignificant and you have to do something big,” he says.
“Short films make me happy. I do not have the talent, the power or the money to make a feature film. I feel shorts are not taken that seriously by audiences, who are only exposed to them through the internet.”
Nevertheless, shorts act as a calling card, a teaser of what a director is capable of, and they can lead to bigger projects.
Few directors make the leap from film school straight into feature filmmaking. Most cut their teeth on shorts and experiment with different style before finding their voice.
Martin Scorcese’s first film was not Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, but a nine-minute short made while he was a student at New York University in 1963 called What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?
Tim Burton shot The Island of Doctor Agor in his backyard when he was 13, Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket started life as a 13-minute film starring a young Luke and Owen Wilson, and Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug in 1997 gave a hint of his ability to create a sinister atmosphere in the subsequent films Inception and The Dark Knight.
Cretton only prepared a script for the longer version of Short Term 12 when his short won an award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009. He went on to secure a $30,000 Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but his script still languished for a year before a newly formed independent production company called Animal Kingdom agreed to fund it.
“It was still low-budget, but more money than I have,” he says.
What he learnt was that there was “no one way to do it. I did enough short films to feel I had learnt enough by then”.
In the UAE, there are a growing number of film production organisations geared toward inspiring Emiratis to take up the director’s chair, from Image Nation, the moviemaking arm of The National’s parent company Abu Dhabi Media, to the $500,000 Sanad Fund in Abu Dhabi and the $100,000 pot held by Dubai Film Connection. There are also a rash of filmmaking courses, including ones run by the New York Film Academy in Abu Dhabi, which inspired the likes of Daniel Carbone and his “hushed but assured” debut Hide Your Smiling Faces.
But Ali Mostafa, 32, feels there could be more done to create an established film fund whose sole purpose is to develop cinema in the UAE.
Despite the success and hype of the $7 million City of Life, it has taken the director four years to secure funding for his next project, which will cost a fraction of his previous budget.
“I still struggle to get funding,” he says. “We still have few Emirati films which have been recognised. I would like to see a film fund set up, as we could easily produce three or four features a year.”
The skills needed to direct a feature rather than a short, he adds, are the same, but no one should leap into making a feature without honing their technique first.
“Film school is not necessarily the best way to make a film,” he says. “The best way to learn is to get on set. I went from helping gaffers and key grips to being the third assistant director and worked my way up.
“Shoot as much as you can, get onto as many film sets as you can and get your hands dirty. Whether it’s a short or a feature, a good film is a good film.”
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