Oct. 29 – When Lily Ragheb of Washington, DC, and her husband Ahmed, a native of Cairo, Egypt, moved to Pittsburgh in 2019, they barely had time to familiarize themselves with the city before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold It brought most of the city down.
As they began taking walks and exploring Lawrenceville and the surrounding area, the seeds of a short film began to take root.
“We’ve heard that Pittsburgh has a burgeoning film scene and a very active independent film scene,” said Lily, 25. “We were both drawn to the visual storytelling at its own pace.”
The resulting short, The Sailor, is among hundreds of entries at the Three Rivers Film Festival and Pittsburgh Shorts Film Festival. They take place back-to-back in November.
The structure of the 11-minute film seems almost documentary. The Raghebs, who live in Shadyside, have made films throughout the Lawrenceville and Strip District neighborhoods, with an Egyptian narrator speaking in Arabic about what he discovers as he explores the town.
But where many new visitors are surprised by the city’s skyline as they emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel, the Raghebs’ camera lingers on the city’s nooks and crannies — a crack in the sidewalk where weeds sprout, or the eaves of a historic home showing signs of weathering on paintwork and woodwork.
The narrator repeats several lines of dialogue in a similar fashion as he describes what he encounters. Ahmed, 26, said the narration was written very consciously.
“We were not only intrigued by the story being told, but also by the language in which it is told,” he said. “This idea that the words you say and don’t say can say more about how you feel than just a straight story with all the facts.”
Ahmed said The Sailor is a kind of cinematic postcard of Pittsburgh, a kind of visual poem about discovering one’s surroundings.
But where the Raghebs focus on a character seeking connection, filmmaker and Banksville resident Stephen Turselli’s lead character tries his best to avoid connections.
Turselli’s “Nebby,” whose title uses the classic Pittsburgh phrase for sticking his nose into the affairs of others, is about a man who tries to avoid interaction with his “nebby neighbor” at all costs.
“I had just finished a short film with another filmmaker and we started talking about how movies can make you feel,” said Turselli, who hails from New York. “I wanted to leave people feeling uncomfortable but also weird.”
In addition, the first major part of the film is suddenly placed in a completely new context by a twist in the plot.
“It’s a little unclear what happens, and then something happens that changes everything you’ve seen up to this point,” Turselli said.
Nebby was shot almost entirely in Wilkinsburg and Bloomfield over three days.
Turselli said his favorite part of the project has been working with West Virginian actor Jack Erdie, who has worked on other locally filmed projects such as Out of the Furnace and the television series Banshee.
“Every conversation I had with him was extremely interesting and I looked for ways to have it,” Turselli said.
However, laying the groundwork for a major plot twist in a 15-minute film was a bit of a challenge.
“You spend a lot of time setting up the conspiracy and throwing false leads,” Turselli said. “But you don’t have the luxury of an hour and a half to let everything play out. You have to be open but also cautious.”
And just like the Raghebs, Turselli discovered and loved the look and feel of the Pittsburgh area.
“The house in Wilkinsburg where we did almost all of the filming was aesthetically perfect,” he said. “It’s like it was built for filming.”
Lily Ragheb said that while the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t been pleasant overall, she and her husband took great pleasure in exploring the city in its comparatively empty state.
“A lot of the nature areas and houses are so beautiful,” she said. “We loved walking around, but you get a whole new perspective with a camera.”
The Three Rivers Film Festival runs from November 10th to 16th and the Pittsburgh Shorts Festival runs from November 17th to 20th. Visit FilmPittsburgh.org for more information on both.
Patrick Varine is a contributor to the Tribune Review. You can contact Patrick via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.