With several local celebrities on hand as well as, due to remarkably good timing, the brilliant American writer and actor Anna Deveare Smith, trophies were handed out yesterday to student filmmakers from Lebanon, Jordan, and Qatar, in the closing ceremony marking the end of the first annual Zayed University Film Festival.

Twelve films from the 70 films the festival received from universities across the Middle East were selected as finalists and played during screenings attended by over 500 people over the course of three days, along with a selection of semi-finalist films.  Grand prize went to Lebanon’s Naji Bechara for “Talk to the Brain,” a satire on the repressiveness of secondary school education, Best Narrative Short went to Amjad Al Rashid “Bitter Days,” a heartbreaking story of a little girl’s life on the street as a shoe shiner, and Best Documentary went to Qatar’s  Sharoukh Al Shaheen for “Lady of the Rosary,” a multifaceted look at the building of Qatar’s first church.  Abdul Salam Al Haj received an Audience Favorite award for “Yousef,” the bittersweet tale of a young man whose only connection to his late mother is her radio.  There were also amongst the finalists films about marriage, Dubai-style; mistaken identities; complications of father and son relationships, the complications war –just to name a few of the topics.  An audience member asked after watching several of the films, “Why is everything except the marriage stories so intense and dark?” I wondered if she was actually living in the Middle East.  That these filmmakers were able to find the humor, sarcasm, and irony within telling stories of their realities is an attribute to their grace and creativity.

But the other real winners of this festival are my two students, Reema Majed and Al Yazyah Al Falasi, the two girls who came up with the idea as their senior project, and against formidable odds, several nay sayers and a ridiculously short window, pulled off a festival that offered a compelling series of films, a creative and engaging advertising campaign, and a well-produced show that ran flawlessly for three days.  In country where everyone is always claiming to be planning the “the first” or “the newest” something, they really did.  And if that isn’t achievement enough, there is also “Let the Show Begin,” a student film that screened from Baghdad about keeping the Iraqi Film Festival alive amidst destitution, daily tragedy and occupation.  I hope that all these students will be able to let the shows continues.

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