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Cairo International Film Festival’s 42nd outing saw films directed by women or featuring female-centric stories dominate its short film section, Cinema of Tomorrow.

Films receiving their world premieres at CIFF included Saudi Arabian director Sara Mesfer’s second self-funded short, “The Girls Who Burned the Night,” a 25-minute story of two sisters and a small act of rebellion that ends in violence when one is refused entry to a grocery store.

According to Mesfer, the film was shot on “practically no budget” and derived from “certain feelings of being trapped and feeling mad about being trapped” that the Jeddah-based director wanted to portray.

“Those are the feelings of the main character, who is the opposite of her sister,” she adds.

Also premiering at the festival was French/Tunisian short “I Bit My Tongue,” the second short film from Marseille-based documentary film editor Nina Khada, which explores some lost aspects of her dual heritage – including the failure to learn Algerian.

“Language is one of the ways we can bond with each other. My father never spoke Algerian with me and growing up in 1990s France at a time when there was civil war in Algeria meant that I always felt so far away from my roots,” she says.

Khada decides to visits Tunis, more familiar turf than Algeria, where she attempts to reconnect with these roots, wandering through the city streets at night during Ramadan asking people whether they can help her find her “lost language.”

Rim Nakhli’s second film “Nour” also features the streets of Tunis, albeit in more changeable weather, as a teenage girl and her brother head across town to meet their estranged father.

In “Isabel,” Sara Shazli explores the relationships between mothers and daughters in the story of a little girl and a secret she’s concealing about her mother. Shazli and her mother, Egyptian filmmaker Marianne Khoury, were both subjects in the latter’s 2019 film “Let’s Talk,” in which they discussed their own relationship and views on motherhood, identity and ancestry.

Zhannat Alshanova’s “History of Civilization,” which won the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival this year, also explores the themes of home and displacement in her 15-minute film about a lecturer’s last night in her home city.

Around a third of this year’s 19 Cinema of Tomorrow entries are from women directors, and it is notable that many of the films from male directors are heavily female-focused.

These include Pedro Peralta’s Portugese/French entry “Perpetual Light,” which centers on an arrested women’s request to feed her baby one last time, and Marwan Nabil’s “About a Girl” (pictured above), which presents the daily harassment and pressure that women are subjected to in Egyptian society.

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“I Bit My Tongue” Courtesy of Cairo Film Festival

Nabil’s film features well-known Egyptian actress Riham Abdel Ghafour (daughter of celebrated Egyptian actor Ashraf Abdel Ghafour) and is screening out of competition, as Riham is one of CIFF’s jurors.

Nabil, a former advertising creative and photographer, also made use of female technical talents behind the camera – the sound design and mix performed by Salma el Barouni and the edit by Mona Rabie.

Last year CIFF became the first Arab festival and the second African one to sign up to the 5050 x 2020 gender equality charter, launched at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

Since 2019 the winner of the Best Short Film award also became eligible to compete in the Academy Awards’ animated and live action short film categories, without the need of a theatrical release.