For the first time in many years, after a long history of UBC alumni premiering films around the world, a film production student will bring a short film to the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
The short film Light, written and directed by Yassmina Karajah, was one of seven short films produced for a third-year film production course at UBC. Karajah and two other students, Jenna Hambrook and Benjamin Houde-Hostland, served as executive producers for the project.
The film tells the story of Omar, a Lebanese man recently settled in Canada, as he deals with the death of his stillborn child and struggles to fulfill his mother’s (Soad Karim) request to perform a religious pre-burial ritual.
With a team largely composed of film production students, Karajah worked on pre-production in the fall of 2013, shooting in December, and starting post-production early in 2014. The film was completed by April. Later that summer, it was accepted to TIFF’s Short Cuts Canada Program, a showcase of short films from Canadian filmmakers.
Karajah, who makes her directorial debut with Light, was able to attend the 2014 Filmmaker Boot Camp ahead of TIFF in preparation for the festival.
“The greatest part of [the boot camp] is you get an education there that you would never be able to get in a classroom,” said Karajah. “Just meeting people in the industry, meeting other filmmakers…. It was quite the experience.”
Light opens with a black screen and a voice lifted in prayer, followed by glimpses of Omar (played by Ahmed Muslimani), edited so that the shots flicker like lamplight before steadying into view. It’s a spare but striking sequence, a quality of the film itself, which throughout its 13-minute runtime is both observant and affecting.
Light deals with larger questions of culture, religion, immigration and the concept of home, issues certainly informed by Karajah’s own move from Jordan to Vancouver. The film is a personal one.
“I witnessed something similar to what is going in the film in terms of story — the death of a baby boy in my family — and I witnessed how people reacted to that,” said Karajah. “So I wanted to create one situation to deal with the concept of home and the concept of death at the same time… Conceptually, the film has a social context to it, but it’s a very personal story.”
Stories, intimate in scale yet far-reaching in impact — like the kind told by the Dardenne brothers (La Promesse, Rosetta) or Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past), filmmakers whom Karajah cited as major influences — are the reason she got into film to begin with.
After graduating from the University of Bristol Law School, Karajah found her interests drawn elsewhere. “I realized that I was just interested in the stories behind the cases and not actually in all the paperwork,” she said. “Film was my true passion.”
The experience of making her first film cemented that interest; and even as she looks forward to a new script that she hopes to produce in her final year, she reflects on the experience of working on Light. “It was great and it was frustrating at times,” said Karajah. “I was new to everything, so that came with a bit of a challenge … but there [is] also something innocent and charming about how first films are made. You don’t always know what you’re doing, but it kind of works out because it’s honest, and it’s genuine and it’s real.”
Light premiered at TIFF over the weekend and will be screened later this month at the Vancouver International Film Festival and on board Air Canada flights through the Air Canada enRoute Film Festival.