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DHAHRAN: When celebrated Japanese actor Tetsuya Bessho landed in Dhahran last month for the Saudi Film Festival, it was his first time in the Kingdom. But the surroundings felt instantly familiar. He slipped back in time to the early days of his career when the world around him felt ripe with ample stories to pick from.

He had journeyed from Japan to learn more about Saudi films, shorts in particular, and was more convinced than ever that short films could be a tool and portal to help us all learn from each other, and ourselves. And Saudi Arabia, he was convinced, was a blossoming place to find these untold narratives.

This week, Bessho is back in Tokyo getting ready for his own film festival, the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, now in its 26th year. The festival starts on June 4 and ends on the 17th, with online streaming available.

“When I was young, I wanted to become a lawyer or a diplomat, or something like that. I wanted to change the world and, in a way, I’m doing that. I became an actor,” Bessho told Arab News.

With this soft diplomatic approach, he was able to most effectively communicate with viewers by showing — and not just telling — complex stories within the stories, more so than when he studied law at university. At the drop of a hat, he could stealthily slip into character and communicate an emotion or idea to help viewers understand a specific predicament or persona.

Short films, he found, were a window from which viewers could look into intimate spaces, from where he could allow people to peer into an unfolding story.

Now, in his late 50s, he looks back at his career with optimism. When Bessho was about 22, someone suggested that he go to Hollywood, so he did. He made his first feature film on that trip and was instantly bit by the acting bug.

When he returned to Tokyo, it was as a Hollywood actor. And while feature films were his preferred genre at the time, he learned to embrace the shorter format.

“Remember back in 1997? Windows 97 — the internet world started. And Microsoft, they talked about maybe creating a world where we will be stepping into the internet world; not on your TV, not in the movie theater — short clips. We have been focusing on these internet worlds,” he added.

Since then, Bessho has dedicated his life to elevating the short film format and encouraging filmmakers to explore that medium.

“Short films are one of the great art formats and also the entertainment that I didn’t know (about previously). All the filmmakers started with short films; it’s like an audition, so I saw potential after that,” he said. “I was shocked, I was amazed — because even a really short film, like five minutes, eight minutes, 10 minutes — it had great messages and great quality of acting,” he said. “It’s a different style of storytelling.”

While in Dhahran, he came to the Saudi Film Festival specifically to scout for short films made by Saudis so he could potentially showcase them in Tokyo at his festival. His film festival has showcased many shorts from Middle Eastern filmmakers previously, but none from Saudi Arabia — yet.

“I can see some of the younger generation … they try to bring a different type of narrative story; a new kind of story that is very Saudi — bringing local flavor to it, their own original story. I can see them through animation, too,” Bessho said.

He sees great potential in emerging Saudi filmmakers and hopes he can add one — or a few — in next year’s programming.

He believes Saudi Arabia is also strategically positioned to excel in the format. Just like in Latin countries, where the language — albeit with various dialects — might tie them in, Saudi filmmakers have been able to create their own rhythm within the short film circuit, he added.

“I think the Arab region has a potential to create wonderful entertainment and Saudi is the key country to cultivate that Arabian entertainment. Like Ali (Kareem Obaid) has a different background, he has a strong motivation and mission to exchange the cultures globally like us, with us. And then in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Film Festival, which is a great entertainment hub.”

Indeed, Obaid, who is a millennial Iraqi German filmmaker, has worked as a script consultant at the Saudi Film Festival in Dhahran, and has been immersed in the blossoming industry from within the region and from abroad.

Obaid got in touch with the Short Shorts Film Festival when he submitted a short film seven or eight years ago. Bessho flew him to Tokyo and they stayed in touch since. In 2024, they reunited in Saudi Arabia.

Obaid’s short film, “Postmodern Times” will be part of the Japanese festival’s “Very Shorts” program this year.

But Bessho has not done it alone. Back in May, the Short Shorts Festival’s director, Seigo Tono, also came to Dhahran. Tono was on hand to select the winners of the short film category at the Saudi Film Festival, where he carefully watched each nominated short film along with his fellow jurors, including Obaid. They presented the selected winners on stage on the final night.

Tono, like Bessho, believes that short films are ideal for telling a compelling story that can change the world, or at least, your view of the world.

“By showing Japanese films to the public overseas, people can learn about the Japanese culture — maybe they might be interested in Japan afterward,” Tono told Arab News.

“The same applies to Saudi films,” he said.

Next year marks 70 years since Saudi Arabia and Japan launched official diplomatic relations. The Short Shorts Festival will attempt to spotlight Saudi short films during its 2025 edition. This year, the Saudi Film Festival spotlighted Indian cinema. Bessho hopes his country will be next on the list.

But for now, both Bessho and Tono will be back in Japan for their own festival. With them, they will take the Saudi stories they watched on the screen — and that they experienced firsthand at the Saudi Film Festival halls — each with a renewed passion for continuing the tradition of using storytelling as a tool.

The festival will be held in Japan with streams on the event’s website and YouTube page, in both Japanese and English.

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