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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

What to expect from Sharjah International Children’s Film Festival 2017

Now in its fifth year, Sharjah International Children’s Film Festival continues its mission of fostering young Emirati talent

Ballad from Tibet by Zhang Wei. Courtesy ShenZhen Hua. Hao Film & Media
Ballad from Tibet by Zhang Wei. Courtesy ShenZhen Hua. Hao Film & Media

When the Sharjah International Children’s Film Festival (SICFF) first launched five years ago, its purpose was simple enough: to encourage more Emirati filmmakers to make films for children.

“When we first started, we had zero submissions from filmmakers in the UAE,” says festival director Sheikha Jawaher bint Abdullah Al Qasimi, who is also director of the Sharjah Media Arts for Youth and Children (FUNN). “And now, only five years later, we have 30 submissions from the UAE taking part, and these are just the ones that were selected, not the total that was submitted.

“In just five years, we reached our objective of becoming a platform from which UAE filmmakers can share their films with children.”

In an incredibly short while, SICFF went from receiving 100 film submissions in its first year - “I remember counting each submission myself on my computer screen and then cheering and jumping up and down with happiness when I realised we had 100,” says Sheikha Jawaher - to a total of 500 submissions this year.

When SICFF was first set up, it also intended to expose children to the art of filmmaking.

“It was an idea of Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of the ruler of Sharjah,” says Sheikha Jawaher. “She wanted to start a children’s film festival and that’s how Funn was born in 2012, as a media arts hub. We launched our first film festival in 2013.

“Her Highness wanted a film festival specifically for children and all about children; cinema now is a serious form of communication and exposing our children to the right sort of film - films with messages - is crucial, especially now that everything is so much more visual, more digital. That’s the way this new generation is learning.”

Emirati filmmaker Alya Al Ali, whose two-minute short Needs A Home will be shown at SICFF as part of the “College Student Films” category, reiterates Sheikha Jawaher’s premise that children can learn plenty from what they see on screen.

“For me, animation is the most important form of media to get through to a child other than schools,” says Al Ali, 23. “Cartoons are a form of education for kids in this day and age. We have to make sure they are watching the right kind of films, and if we have a message to get across to a child, there’s no better way to do so than through film.”

Al Ali’s animated film, about a homeless cat who dreams of being sheltered and belonging to someone, address the issues of animal welfare and suggests that children can do their part to help stray animals.

“I wanted kids to see that they animals feel just as humans do” they need caring, they don’t want to be lonely. The film is from the point of view of the cat, and it images a girl who cares for him, feeds him, cuddles him. The children watching can empathise with the cat’s feelings.”

Created as part of her graduation project, Al Ali is a recent graduate in animation from the Department of Mass Communications at the Higher Colleges of Technology.

“I submitted the film to the festival because I feel it holds an important message for children, and it is sketched simply enough for them to grasp the meaning behind the story,” explains Al Alil.

A recent cat owner, Al Ali says she was surprised to see how much she has grown to care for the homeless cats she encounters on a daily basis.

“Animals can feel your joy, your sickness, your sadness; it’s amazing, and I wanted others who used to not care for animals to also understand that these animals have feelings. Now when I see poor animals in the streets, strays with no food or shelter, it hurts me. People don’t even notice them, or run over them, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I wanted to send a message, especially to kids, that these animals need shelter, and film is a very, very powerful tool to reach children, because what child doesn’t like watching something on a screen?”

A film doesn’t necessarily have to be made with children in mind for it to be suitable for SICFF and a younger audience, as Aisha Al Zaabi, director of the 16-minute-long A Night In A Taxi, recently discovered.

The Emirati filmmaker, 24, whose short film My Dear Home With Love won Best Emirati Film last year at SICFF, said she never set out to make a children’s film per say.

“Kids soak up so much, and understand emotion. In my film, I wanted to show people that the labourers who work with us and for us every day have a voice, and when they speak, it’s not just because they want a tip or want extra money,” says Al Zaabi.

The film, which was filmed over two days in Ras Al Khaimah, follows a Pakistani taxi driver working the night shift in Abu Dhabi. He listens to his passengers as they chatter and complain and share stories, but when it’s his turn to converse, few are willing to listen.

“It’s amazing that we have a festival like this to expose children to all sorts of film,” says Al Zaabi. “If we had a festival like this back in our time, maybe we would soak up cinema better or understand film better.”

From experience, Al Zaabi has learned to never underestimate a child viewer. “You’d be amazed the kind of questions that kids ask at these festival; they are so much more aware about film than we give them credit for. From camera movement to a question about lighting, they ask it all; things that didn’t even occur to me until I was immersed in studying film. Having a festival like this can change the entire industry for us filmmakers.”

And that’s exactly the objective that Sheikha Jawaher hopes to achieve. “We want to these children to become our future filmmakers,” she says. “By exposing them to film, teaching them skills, conducting workshops for them throughout the year and at the festival, we’re well on our way.”

The workshops are also geared at adults, in the hopes that parents will attend while their children are busy watching films. That way, adults can be taught what goes into making a film for children.

Japanese-Australian actor and director, Shingo Usami, chose to teach himself the art of moviemaking, if at least to be able to create better and more varied roles for a Japanese actor like himself.

Like Al Zaabi’s, Usami’s film - the 10-minute international short Riceballs - was not intentionally made for children, but it certainly resonated with younger viewers. A recently-widowed Japanese father living in Sydney sets out to make traditional Japanese riceballs for his Australian son, who is desperately missing his mother. The short looks at what it’s like to grow up in a multicultural society like Australia and struggle with cultural identity as well as overcoming death - all themes that children can relate to.

“I didn’t set out to make a children’s film, but it has done really well in the children’s film festival circuit around the world,” explains Usami, 48. This is only his second short film, and he admits the entire process is new to him.

“I’d like to learn more about the difference in making a film for children and one for a more general audience, but I believe the key is to simply tell a good story that people can relate to,” says Usami.

The challenge, he explains, is keeping it to 10 minutes without inundating the film with too much information, while simultaneously not dumbing it down too much.

“Personally, I find lots of short films in film festival circuits to be too simple and I’m left thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ I didn’t want my film to be like that. I just wanted to put in as much as possible without having to have the character say too much or do too much, but still get the emotion and situation and story through.”

It helps, says Usami, that children are such intuitive viewers, and it might explain the success his film has had at various children’s film festivals around the world.

“Children have a heightened sense of emotion, so that might be it,” he says.

Al Zaabi thinks it’s simpler than that. “Children are just the best viewers with the best questions,” she says. “They deserve to have a film festival dedicated just to them.”

SICFF will begin October 8 and continue until October 13, and will feature 124 films from 31 countries. Films will be screened for school children at the Novo Cinemas in Sahara Centre and for both school children and the general public at Sharjah’s Al Jawaher Reception & Convention Centre. Visit www.sicff.ae

Don’t Miss

This year, seven films from around the world, all by award-winning directors, will have their regional premieres at the 5th edition of the Sharjah International Children’s Festival. Here’s a look at the films your children need to be watching.

Albion: The Enchanted Stallion

English, 120 mins

Set to be the opening film at SICFF this year, Castille Landon’s Albion: The Enchanted Stallion tells the story of Ivy, a teenage girl who is transported by a magical black stallion to the mystical world of Albion, where she discovers that she alone is the key to saving an entire race of people. Starring John Cleese, Debra Messing, Jennifer Morrison and Stephen Dorf, the film has already received good reviews.

The Day my Father Became a Bush

Dutch, 90 mins

Based on a novel by Joke Van Leeuwen, this film tells the tale of 10-year-old Toda who is forced to live with her grandparents after her father is called away to war. The movie’s director, Nicole van Kilsdonk, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2004 for her film Dining.

Big and Little

German, 98 mins

Stefan Jager’s film, Big and Little, tells the tale of Anton Sommer, who lives in a suburb of Bern in Switzerland. Unhappy with his life and uncertain of his goals, he decides to travel to Japan with a Japanese companion - a young boy who helps Sommer rediscover meaning to life, overcome his loneliness and find new perspective.

Window Horses

English, 85 mins

This Canadian film, by award-winning Canadian independent filmmaker and writer Ann Marie Fleming, follows a young Canadian poet who travels to Persia to perform in a festival. The poet, raised by her strict and protective Chinese grandparents, has never previously travelled on her own, and must learn to build bridges between the cultural and generational divide that she encounters, while finding her own voice through the magic of poetry.

At Eye Level

German, 97 mins

Michael is an orphan desperate to find his father. Tom is the father, and he isn’t even aware of Michael’s existence. When the two finally meet, Michael is shocked to discover that his father is actually a dwarf, and has to grapple with the internal conflict of desperately want to belong to a family, and the struggle he has to face in accepting his father’s differences.

Ballad from Tibet

Chinese, 84 mins

The premise is strange: a group of children from Tibet only have a little while to go before they completely lose their sight. They are in a race against time to see everything they want to see, and achieve their dreams and ambitions, before darkness takes over. Each one of the children has their own story to pursue and their own challenges to face.

The Little Vampire

English, 95 mins

Tony, a lonely boy, becomes best friends with a 13-year-old vampires named Rudolph. Rudolph’s clan is threatened by a notorious vampire hunter and Tony, also 13 and fascinated by old castles, graveyards and of course, vampires, wants to help. The two embark on an action and humor-packed battle against their adversaries.

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