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Baba review: ‘Dazzling short film about what it means to be Arab, Muslim and queer’

"Says more in 17 minutes than most films say in two hours," writes Jamie Tabberer of Adam Ali and Sam Arbor's Iris Prize-winning short

By Jamie Tabberer

Words: Jamie Tabberer

The eyes. The lips. The skin. The hair. And don’t get us started on the skin-tight crop top and Union Jack nails.

No, we’re not describing the latest turn on the Drag Race runway, but rather the wardrobe and make-up work in Baba: a dazzling short film about a young Libyan embracing his queerness that won the top award – and £30,000 – at last week’s Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival in Cardiff

It deserves every award going for rising star Adam Ali’s exuberant performance alone. He sells the hell of it. Not least the striking look in question, complete with a mop of blonde curls; plunging us straight into the teen’s world of gritty self-sufficiency, the film opens with a terrifying self-bleaching job you absolutely should not try at home!

A dazzling extrovert, our main character dreams of life on Manchester’s Canal Street and compares his new hairdo to UK PM Boris Johnson and Princess Diana. Ali’s comic timing had this reviewer guffawing like the former, and longing for the elegance of the latter. 

Although set in Tripoli, Libya – where it is illegal to be gay – the film was shot in the UK owing to Coronavirus restrictions. Co-director Sam Arbor and the Baba team’s presentation skills again come up trumps. The scene-setting is, in theory, rudimentary – some drapes here, some rugs there – but combined with moody lighting and the actors’ dewy (read: perspiring) faces, you somehow feel the heat of Northern Africa.

There’s also a killer hook: upon receiving notice of an interview at the British Embassy, our unnamed protagonist realises his passport is trapped in his abusive father’s home. He ropes in two devoted BFFs to help retrieve it, leading to a face-off that defies expectations. 

It’s over in no time, leaving you begging for more. But the film still says more in 18 minutes than most do in two hours. (And some TV shows in 100 hours!) Not least about the painful irresolution of loving a homophobe and, as underlined in the closing credits, the beauty of being Arab, Muslim, and queer.

The supporting characters shine despite a lack of screentime, and there are some dodgy special effects used to denote home video footage. But beyond these minor details, you’ll be hard-pressed to criticise this essentially flawless film, of which the extraordinarily beautiful Ali – with those emotive Disney character eyes! – is the jewel in the crown.


You can watch Baba as part of the Iris Prize on a pay-what-you-can basis here.

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