Shout Art Loud

An interactive documentary by Melody Patry on different artistic initiatives that tackle sexual harassment in Egypt. It really sums up some of the most creative art movements since the overthrow of Mubarak.

You can see the full documentary here.

فيلم تسجيلي تفاعلي من إخراج ملودي باتري حول مبادرات فنية مختلفة تعالج موضوع التحرش الجنسي في مصر. يجمع الفيلم بعضاً من أكثر التوجهات الفنية تفرداً منذ الإطاحة بمبارك.

يمكنك هنا مشاهدة الفيلم كاملاً.

 

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Behind the Scenes

Political disagreements and production cuts are affecting the creation of television series for Ramadan this year.

Unshoodat Al Matar Film Set Location 1

The success of Syrian dramas is their ability to convey the social and political concerns of Syrians and Arabs. This year, however, what used to be a strength has turned into a weakness. The outspoken views expressed by some Syrian drama professionals towards the unrest in Syria has caused production companies to deny work to certain artists and has also prompted some activists to boycott dramas made by people with whom they disagree. Further, the economic impact of the unrest that began in March is also impacting the funding available for producing new dramas.

Both factors are causing a decrease in the film industry this year, and this drop will be visible during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting that begins in August. Many Arabs recognise this season as being as much a time for watching drama series as it is a time for religious devotion. Arab and Syrian production companies release their soap operas during Ramadan.

While there are no exact figures on the number of Syrian soaps that will be produced this year, drama professionals say the number will be far fewer than the 30 series that, according to statistics provided by the state news agency SANA, were aired during Ramadan last year.

Production down
Although political disagreements are hurting drama production, the economic impact of the unrest is the main hindrance in the production of television series.

Syrian producer and actor Firas Ibrahim said in an interview with Shorouk News website that major Syrian production companies stopped several soaps that were planned for this Ramadan season due to financial worries. While he said he is not planning to stop the production of his drama series Fi Hadret al-Gheyab (In the Presence of Absence) about the life of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, he said he is worried that it will not achieve the financial success he anticipated.

“With demonstrations sweeping over the Arab World, there has become a real marketing crisis because of a fall in advertisements that are the main financers of TV series,” Ibrahim told the website, adding that channels that used to pay about SYP 95m (USD 2m) for a series are now only paying SYP 9.5m (USD 200,000).

According to Ibrahim, some television channels are not signing contracts with studios to buy rights to air series currently in the making because of concerns that, because of the unrest, the production companies would fail to complete the series in time to be broadcast during Ramadan or that they will not attract viewers.

Boycotting drama
Drama, like political dialogue, is also becoming polarised in the current climate. Increasingly, there are online campaigns by young Syrian activists to boycott both series that feature pro-government artists and those that feature people who support the opposition. This division makes it harder to convince advertisers to invest in Syrian soaps this year, since it reduces audience size.

“No sane advertiser would invest in a series that is boycotted by the audience,” said a young woman from Damascus who is a member of a campaign to boycott pro-government artists and asked to remain anonymous.

Activists published lists of pro-government and opposition artists and named them as “shameful” or “honourable” according to which side the activists support. The founder of a Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists, who asked to stay anonymous, said his page’s “followers” are not only boycotting dramas that feature pro-regime artists but also the channels that broadcast them.

“The boycott has already started. When I asked [people] to boycott (Syrian actor) Abbas al-Nouri’s programme on MBC channel, the followers not only agreed but even asked to boycott all channels that work together with artists from the shame list,” the founder of the page, which had more than 19,661 followers at the time Syria Today went to print, said.
Manea’ al-Jarba, founder of a Facebook page that lists artists who support the ‘Syrian revolution’, said he compiles the lists according to the artists’ statements to the press and their posts on social-networking sites.

Even Egyptian activists, who compiled their own shame lists during the Egyptian revolution, started an online campaign that calls upon the Egyptian production companies to terminate their contracts with pro-government Syrian artists.

There is only one shame list by pro-government activists, but Syria Today could not reach its founder. In addition to listing opposition TV professionals, the list also names politicians and other public figures who support the Syrian revolution. The list had 1,123 followers by the time Syria Today went to print.

Joelle and Rasheed 1

Infighting
Perhaps more interesting than the economic impact of unrest on Syrian television and its effect on viewership is the drama it is causing behind the scenes. Disputes among drama professionals over the unrest in Syria are aggravating the challenges to producing television series this year.

A petition signed by more than 300 Syrian actors, writers and other TV professionals calling for the Syrian government to “lift the food siege imposed on Dera’a” and to provide the city’s children with food and medical supplies sparked tension between drama professionals. The artists released the statement, dubbed the ‘milk petition’ – because of its request that residents be given milk and other necessities – following the Syrian military operation that started on April 25 in the southern city of Dera’a against what the government alleged were “terrorist groups”.

The signatories were criticised in a campaign by other drama professionals and media spokesmen in both official and some private Syrian media. Famous directors such as Hesham Sharbatji went as far as publicly calling those who signed the petition – including his daughter, director Rasha Sharbatji – “traitors” in a programme on the private Syrian TV channel al-Dunia.

In a statement published shortly after the “milk petition”, 22 Syrian film production companies announced in a statement that they would boycott all its signatories. The companies described the petition’s “fabricated claims” as “a political statement masked as a humanitarian call” that aims to “offend both the Syrian nation and its government”.

Some Syrian production companies also called for rescinding the Syrian Order of Merit that President Bashar al-Assad granted Muna Wasif, the famous Syrian actress and mother of prominent opposition figure Ammar Abdulhamid in 2009, because she had signed the petition.

In an interview with the official Syrian TV, director Laith Hajo said that the Syrian artists’ union also discussed firing members because of their political views.

“We demanded lifting the emergency law and now every Syrian citizen is creating his own emergency law and giving himself the right to randomly attack and fire others,” Hajo told the channel.

As a result, TV professionals reported concerns that they will lose their jobs.

“They [Syrian production companies] want to stop me from working because of my humanitarian call,” Mey Skaf, a Syrian actress who signed the petition, said. So far, she added, none of her contracts had been cancelled.

Attempts at reconciliation
Moves by public personalities to address these disputes have so far failed. A meeting organised by a Palestinian figure to bring opposing drama professionals’ views closer ended without resolution – there was an argument and several attendees walked out. All footage of the meeting captured by local media was seized by the authorities and could not be aired. Drama professionals, some of whom attended the meeting, did not reply to Syria Today’s repeated requests for comment.

President Assad also met a number of Syrian drama professionals, including the actress Wasif, who described the meeting as “transparent and civilised”. During the meeting, Assad asked the artists to stop their accusations and stressed that “the word traitor is not included in our dictionary”, Wasif told the Syrian media following the meeting.

Still, Syrian artists continued to argue publicly over their political stances.

The founder of the Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists said he believes that regardless of the artists’ views and the boycott campaigns, few people will watch television series this Ramadan anyway.

“Arab news channels are all that Syrians watch these days,” he said. “People from both sexes and all age categories are breathing politics. I don’t expect things to settle down before Ramadan and therefore this year’s drama season will suffer a huge blow unless it focuses on politics and the current Arab revolutions.”

Facebook page founder Jarba agreed, adding: “The Arab World is busy today reshaping its identity, which is taking place on the ground and not on the screen.”

I published this article in Syria Today magazine.

Festival to offer documentary film grants

Dox Box, a four-year-old, locally-run Syrian documentary film festival, will begin giving away grants to filmmakers this year. The programme is called Tamkeen and is funded by the National Film Organisation, the Dubai International Film Festival and Sura production company. The best Syrian and best two Arab creative documentary film projects that applied to the festival’s film training programme, dubbed Campus, will win the grants.

This year’s festival will be held from March 2 to 10 at various theatres in Damascus, Homs, Tartous and Aleppo.

It will screen a series of films by Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay. The internationally-acclaimed filmmaker who passed away this February was active in Damascus’s dissident circles and most of his films are banned. In addition to film screenings, Dox Box is the only local festival to organise film industry events designed to improve the Arab film scene. In addition to Campus, Takween provides an introductory programme to documentary making for inexperienced youth, and Tabadol is a professional networking platform to develop links between regional and Arab professionals and the international film industry players.

“By organising industry events to develop the local film scene, Dox Box is saying that festivals are not only an occasion to screen films. This makes the festival stand out not only in Syria but in the region in general,” Syrian filmmaker Nidal al-Dibs said. “Ten years from now, there will be a generation of filmmakers who will say we started from Dox Box.”

Dibs also said he believes that Dox Box played an important role in reaching out to young Syrians and in changing people’s view of documentaries as solely news related.

“Dox Box shows documentaries as an art form and not journalism,” he said. “This is an important step to establish documentary filmmaking – which has been downplayed lately in the region – as a respectable art form.”

Still, the country’s film industry is grappling with insufficient cinema training and funding, as well as with strict censorship. The National Film Organisation (NFO) and Syrian TV were the sole producers of documentaries in the country through the end of the 1980s. They mostly produced “documentation films” that are closer in form to journalism than to creative documentaries. Although the NFO did fund a few critically-acclaimed Syrian documentaries, these films were censored and never allowed to be screened locally.

Today, eight to 12 documentaries in total are produced in Syria annually. Most are privately granted or commissioned by Arabic or, in some cases, international television stations. Some filmmakers turn to international grants, NGOs and subject-matter relevant grants. However, due to the world financial crisis, arts funding worldwide and in Syria particularly are facing cuts.

For more information about DOX BOX log on to www.dox-box.org

This was published in Syria Today magazine.

Review of El Sicario by Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi

El Sicario by Gianfranco Rosi

Let’s face it! A film shot in a small motel room with a single character who delivers an 80 minutes long monologue while his head is covered with a black sack does not sound like an exciting thing to watch! Yet behind this extremely boring scene lies an extraordinary story of assassination, torture and redemption. Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi gains rare access to an assassin for the Juarez drug cartels in Mexico. With the help of a pen and a sketch book, the assassin reveals the secrets of drug trafficking between Mexico and the United States.  El Sicario (the hit man) draws how he got involved in drug trafficking, acts how he held and tortured his victims in the small motel room and falls down on his knees as he recalls his moment of redemption; an exceptional journey in the psyche of an extraordinary character who manages to capture your attention without looking you in the eye. If you are fond of Mafia stories then El Sicario is the film for you.  But for those who, like me, are not too keen on such anecdotes, you might find it a bit too long.

This review was published in Point of View, DOX BOX international documentary film festival’s gazette. 

Review of Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al-Massad’s film “This is My Picture When I Was Dead”

"This is My Picture When I Was Dead" by Mahmoud al-Massad

Father and 4 year-old son are giggling in a car’s front seat. At a red light, masked motorcyclist fires bullets into the car and both father and son are declared dead. Yet, three hours later, the little one is miraculously brought back to life. The father is PLO fighter Mamoun Mraish who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1983.  Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al-Massad follows the life of Mraish’s now 32 year-old son Bashir who is following in the footsteps of his father. However, instead of taking up arms, Bashir paints political caricatures.

A touching film story with a title (This is my picture when I was dead) that grabs you by the collar and brings you into the cinema. The stunning opening scene – a video of Israel’s phosphorus bombs lighting the sky of Gaza like fireworks accompanied by an ironic Christmas song- will glue your eyes to the screen.

Yet your initial enthusiasm for the beautifully shot film might be soon dampened. Massad does not delve into Bashir’s character. He gives us little more than what anyone of us might get in a polite chit chat with the man in a formal meeting.  Massad also chooses to go through key events in Mamoun and Palestine’s history, yet deters from giving us more than snapshots that would probably leave viewers who are less familiar with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict confused.

This review was published in Point of View, DOX BOX international documentary film festival’s gazette. 

Review of Chemo and Albert’s Winter by filmmakers Pawel Lozinsk and Andreas Koefoed

Chemo by Pawel Lozinsk

“Am afraid of chemotherapy, even more than cancer!” says one of the cancer patients in Polish filmmaker Pawel Lozinsk’s film Chemo.  Two films in DOX BOX 2011’s film selection, Chemo and Albert’s Winter, revolve around the same theme: cancer. However each looks at it from a different perspective. In Chemo, Lozinsk takes us in a tour in the chemotherapy ward of an oncology clinic. Yet, we never get to see the place itself. Instead, his camera zooms in on the patients as they chat about chemotherapy with the ease of a couple who are discussing the rising prices in a souk. “When you get cancer, you must love it like an unwanted child,” a patient tells her roommate. Together, they joke about cancer, complain to each other and sometimes break into tears.

At some point Lozinsk’s excessive use of close ups becomes suffocating. The window shots that he takes every now and then only serve to further emphasize the sense of being trapped.  He only uses a wide shot when patients leave the ward at the end of the film. Ah… what a relief!

Albert's Winter

In Albert’s Winter, on the other hand, Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed observes cancer through the eyes of eight year-old Albert whose mother is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. The beautifully shot film is relaxed and tender. The filmmaker takes a step back and observes Albert just like the little kid is observing his mother’s illness. Koefoed beautifully reflects the child’s inner sense of insecurity, sadness and struggle to accept his mother’s illness through the snow scenes. A deeply touching film.

This review was published in Point of View, DOX BOX documentary film festival’s gazette.

Docs for all!

Boring, boring, boring! That’s the only answer I got whenever I invited any of my friends to watch a documentary just five years ago. Today, friends are asking me, two weeks before DOX BOX 2011 starts, for the festival’s highlights. Since its launch in 2008, DOX BOX set off to break the stereotype of documentaries in Syria as TV reportages and scientific reports. It strived to show that there’s much more to this art form than National Geographic videos by screening creative documentaries by the masters of this craft.

Renowned filmmakers like France’s  Nicholas Philibert, Chile’s Patricio Guzmán and America’s Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus visited DOX BOX. Their masterpieces Every Little Thing, The Battle of Chile, Don’t Look Back and Startup.com among others, were at play in the festival’s previous editions. This year, renowned British filmmaker Kim Longinotto is here and 4 of her films will be on show (Hold me Tight, Let me Go, Pink Saris, Sisters in Low, Pride of Place).

DOX BOX set off to break yet another stereotype this year and demonstrate that documentaries are not only for grownups by introducing the sidebar Youth: My World. In this sidebar, the country’s teens are invited to watch 4 documentaries (Draw Yourself, Albert’s Winter, Plank, Early Learning)

The festival also expanded its net and moved to yet another city, Aleppo. So, Grownups and Teens in Damascus, Homs, Tartous and Aleppo, welcome to DOX BOX 2011!