The Spanish Spring

So the Spanish revolution – or the 15M (el movimiento 15M)*  as the Spanish like to call it – is not led by the young only, It is about building an active civil society rather than changing regimes, and it isn’t about money but rather ethics! I talked to consultant in International Cooperation and Development, Alberto Hedo Delgado and screenwriter, Mario Cuesta Hernando, who are both actively participating in the 15M, to find out what “other” misconceptions I have about the revolution.

 “From Tahrir to Madrid to the world, world revolution,” says one of the banners raised by Spanish protesters referring to sit-ins organized by Egyptian protestors in Tahrir square. Do you think the Arab Spring will turn into a “European or Spanish Summer”? Why do you think so?

Mario: There have been slogans linking the Spanish Revolution to the Arab Spring, to the Greek fury in Syntagma Square, and the Icelandic demonstrators who refused to pay their bank debts… The difference is that in Spain (and so Europe) we demand economic changes (like protection of public services, stopping the international stock-market speculation and cutting the links of governments with the economic powers), while the Arab Spring is about politics and demanding democracy. I think the main link is that in a global economy, citizen movements are global too. With different demands, we look around and we think “this is the time”.

What do the two revolutions have in common?

Alberto: Both movements avoid (at least in principle) concrete ideologies. What unites people in both movements is the desire for change and the need to find a better form of government. Both movements are using social media to expand and take both national and international hold. Another common element in all the movements that have emerged this year is occupying a physical space (squares) as a symbol of taking over the power by the people.

Mario: Both [revolutions] have the impulse of the youth but involve people of every age and are supported by the middle class. All of them were unexpected in their strength and persistence. For me, persistence is the singularity of all these demonstrations.

Analysts say the Spanish revolution is about the power of the globalised industrialized corporations and their partnership with banks rather than democracy and politics. What do you think? If yes, how are you hoping to change this power relationship between banks and corporations?

Mario: We demand new economic ethics, but this can only be done through politics. I don’t expect banks and corporations to change their mentality, but I do expect the parliament to release laws that will force them to act ethically.

However, every person you ask from the 15M will give you a different perspective on what economic and politic changes he/she expects. Some people just expect stronger regulations for banks and stock exchange, others want to protect public services (Health, Education…), but there are anarchist tendencies demanding a complete change of the rules. I think all of us would agree on two things: we didn’t provoke this crisis, so we shouldn’t pay and suffer the consequences (that we already do); and we must do whatever it takes to avoid a crisis like this in the future.

How to make that happen? First, by encouraging people to express their anger. It is necessary to spread an individual “revolutionary state of mind” and the sense of responsibility that as citizens we should be aware, meet with those who share our concerns, and find tools for citizen participation other than voting.

Second, – and I think this is the main goal of the 15M till now- to control media’s agenda. The last decade journalists were supporters of political parties. Their agenda was the same as the parties’ agenda. The political section of [local] papers were like “kids’ fight” between the government and the opposition. “You did this”, “but you did it before”, “but you do it more often”. The political debate was extremely shallow. Now, whether journalist and politicians agree or disagree with our movement, but they talk about us daily, and that means they talk about our concerns, our demands, and they can’t do it without using our vocabulary: poverty, abuse, speculation, unemployment, justice… we pushed politics debate to a more adult level.

And finally [we are achieving change] through specific actions, some of which were already taken before the 15M, but the revolution has provided them with better logistics and higher numbers. For example, since the start of the financial crisis, thousands of families were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t pay their mortgages (200 families daily since 2007; 15.491 only in the first three months of 2011). When the police and the court secretary go to the house to evict the family, they find hundreds of people at the front door. Only riot police can move those people, and usually banks (who own the mortgage) prefer not have that bad publicity. So families can stay. It is working so well that we have caught media’s attention, and the parliament had to approve a law to protect families. Still, the [new] law was not good enough and we keep meeting at front doors. Persistence is working.

Protestors called for boycotting elections. Yet municipal elections witnessed a relatively high figure this year (65 per cent of Spanish voters). Why do you think is that? And what do you think of the elections’ result?

Alberto: The 15M is not an organized movement, with a visible head or leader to follow. Each person or small group choose the best form of protest they like. Media promoted the view that protesters were mainly calling for abstention. I doubt that the majority did so, since the election results showed that abstention was not significantly higher than it was in previous elections. Major political parties, large corporations, banks and mass media fostered the view that we are young “anti-systems”, we ignore politics and elections, just a bunch of anarchists protesting without any proposal. This is clearly an attempt to discredit a movement that is taking shape and gaining growing acceptance by society. But we will not stop. To quote one of our slogans: “we do not fear” and since many people have no jobs, no homes, no peace of mind or rest… we have plenty of time!

Spain has tended, except in very specific historical periods, towards conformism. This is finally starting to change. But still, there are many people with pessimistic attitudes, who will not vote. Many people who failed to vote cried the next day because the right party won almost everything. It was devastating. Now it is time to convince those who chose not to vote that in the next election they should play an active role and vote.

Mario: participating in a democracy is not only about voting every 4 years. You must get involved and participate. For example, I am against the weapon industry but my savings were in a bank that finances that industry. I was basically demonstrating in the evening against what I was financing in the morning, so I searched for another bank and I moved my savings.

Things don’t happen every 4 years. Suddenly a huge financial crisis happened and we were not prepared to react as sovereign citizens. Politicians didn’t think for a second that they had to ask before giving our taxes to banks, because in their mentality if we don’t like what they do we will vote differently in 4 years time… A decision so important should not have been taken without asking people in a referendum. Look at Iceland, they refused to pay. That can’t happen again, and the only way to avoid it is by having regular citizen participation.

Would a change of regime in Spain, anyway, help solve the economical crisis the country is facing today?

Alberto: The crisis is global, so a change of government and attitude will not change anything related to the international crisis. However, there are concrete proposals that assemblies of 15M made to mitigate the effects of the crisis like limiting bailouts to banks and financial institutions, promoting social spending and supporting families to encourage household spending and revive the economy, identifying the implications of the alleged Spanish debt and rebuilding the Spanish National Bank as a public entity with the capacity to control inflation and financial transactions.

It is clear that the implementation of such initiatives, will not be to the international markets and international financial institutions’ likening. Nor will it be to the likening of many countries that promote initiatives of public spending cuts. This would have consequences for Spain and the debt ratings by rating agencies, but the more important thing for Spanish society is to feel that the Spanish government is more concerned about the people it represents rather than external institutions who are only concerned about their own interests and about maintaining an economic and political system that is clearly unfair.

The Spanish revolution was described by journalist Matthew Campbell in The Australian as “Part new-age festival, part student sit-in” that “has no leadership, no party affiliation and no specific aims”. As participants in the protests, how do you see the Spanish revolution? What is it about?

Mario: Mr Campbell is right when he says “has no leadership, no party affiliation and no specific aims”. But I don’t consider it an obstacle, even more, I think it’s a big achievement, and part of the nature of the movement. We demand new politics, starting by a new way of doing politics. However it is not true that we don’t have specific aims, we do. But we have many. I like very much the distinction that Antonio Negri makes in his last book Multitude. He says revolution of the masses was a XX century movement, meanwhile now people behave as a multitude: a sum of individualities, a net.

Alberto: As I see it, the Spanish revolution is the struggle to overcome a political, social economic, immoral, unfair and violent system that is less democratic than they want us to believe. It is a struggle for the governments to begin to rule by and for the people and not by and for banks and international markets.

The movement is not made up of a few young students, there are all kinds of people: young and old, children, women, men … What unites us is a desire to recover our dignity, control of politics and ultimately to regain control over decisions that affect our daily lives.

Dubbed the “lost generation”, the Spanish youth was described as apolitical and passive. Yet, since the 15th of May, thousands of Spaniards took to the street to demand change. How is the current revolution changing the attitude and mentality of the Spanish youth?

Alberto:  After 40 years of repressive dictatorship, the arrival of democracy without promoting the mobilization of citizens led to conformity. It was as though we’ve gone as far as we could. This is not entirely true! now we can see that people are thinking. A revolution is not something that emerges one day, but it is an amalgam of emotions and feelings and need for change that has been brewing for a long time in the heads of people. They just had to overcome their fear to express themselves publicly.

When everything looks fine, as promoted by all political and economic institutions, you can only think that you’re lucky. During good times, if you say something is wrong, society rejects you and considers you extremist or maybe too pessimistic. This is why people have been quiet although they enjoy a supposedly guaranteed freedom of expression.

Mario:  Not only youth is supporting the movement. Mass media say it does, maybe because they love the label of “youth-revolutions” but that’s a terrible simplification and has been very painful for the 15M. I’m sure many old people who agree with our aims didn’t join because of that awful label. My neighbourhood-assembly had to make specific actions to break that image and involve everybody on the hood, regardless of their age. I can’t understand why some people think that “young” is more romantic.

The two activists stressed that they are not representatives of the 15M and that their views do not represent the views of all protestors.

* el movimiento 15M: the 15 M movement – refers to the first protest that marked the start of the Spanish revolution on May 15.

Q&A: Maria Arnaout, General Director, Damascus Opera House

The leader of the country’s central arts venue talks about the future of the space.

Maria Arnaout

Maria Arnaout

Recently, Damascus Opera House started producing its own shows and running community projects. Are you planning to move from solely being a space for arts to developing the local arts scene?

It is not really a change in our role. This has always been our aim but Damascus Opera House is still young and it is now that we have become ready to work on development projects.

We got a small grant from the Czech embassy to start an audio-visual library. We are gathering CDs and DVDs of rare music, theatre and dance performances.

The Ministry of Culture has allocated to us a car equipped with a TV filming set to be able to record our own shows. We recorded a concert by Syrian pianist Ghazwan Zerikly in which he played compositions by Franz Liszt and we will start selling copies for a reasonable price.

We’ve also produced our own shows; namely The Marriage of Figaro last season and Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini. The latter will be showing in May. We’ve also finished auditions and casting for the musical Oliver! based on the novel Oliver Twist.

There is a music project called El Sistema that Venezuela started in the 1980s to help homeless children get away from drugs, alcohol and street violence by offering them free musical instruments and tuition. Today, there are over a hundred youth orchestras in Venezuela and some of those homeless children became internationally renowned musicians. Inspired by El Sistema, I suggested that we invite Syrian orphans to perform in Oliver!. We chose 25 children from over 60 young applicants from orphanages.

Audiences are often made up primarily of intellectuals and the elite. What are you doing to expand your outreach?
We sell tickets for very reasonable prices that average Syrians can afford. Syrians can attend shows that cost hundreds of Euros abroad for very cheap prices here. Few operas around the world can boast such cheap tickets.

We are also working on raising awareness about our shows. We are planning to work together with our guest artists and organise public classes and workshops run by them for Syrian students. This way, we can raise awareness about art among everyday Syrians who are not experts in this field.

How can Damascus Opera House sustain itself financially?
We are one of the few opera houses that get governmental funds. It is a well-known fact that when a country is hit by an economic crisis, the cultural activities are always the first to suffer from a cut in the budget. The over 100-year-old Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, filed for bankruptcy protection this April. Of course, the budget allocated to Damascus Opera House cannot compare to that of other opera houses around the world, but the funds we get help us continue our work. Still, we encourage the private sector to invest. In fact, we’ve just opened the opera’s café and restaurant for investment.

How are the recent events in Syria affecting the opera house?
I believe that, under any circumstances, cultural events should continue. If we stop our cultural work, we would be taking the country backward. Therefore, the Opera House did not cancel any of its events. Those events that were cancelled were cancelled by the artists. While some were Syrian, most of the cancelled events were by foreign artists whose foreign ministries advised them to avoid travelling to Syria due to the current situation. However, our other events this month were well attended.

Will any big names perform in the opera this year?

We’ll host a Russian ballet performance on ice in December. This will be the first event of its kind in Syria. They’ll perform Swan Lake and the Nutcracker.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Christina Markus Lassen Danish Ambassador to Syria

Denmark’s representative in Damascus comments on improving relations between the two countries.

Christina Markus Lassen Danish Ambassador to Syria / photo by Carole Farah

Could you give us a background on Syrian-Danish ties?
Denmark and Syria have had diplomatic relations since 1950. We have a strong bilateral relationship based on frequent political contacts and good people-to-people links. With the establishment of The Danish Institute in Damascus in 2000, another component was added to our relationship, giving us an excellent launch pad for Danish-Syrian cooperation and enabling even more Danes to come to Syria and get to know the country. 

How have ties changed following the cartoon crisis?
I think that we all learned valuable lessons during the crisis. We learned that knowledge, dialogue and respect between people is the only way to counter misunderstandings and misconceptions.

In Denmark the crisis made people much more interested in understanding and exploring the Middle East, learning the language and meeting the people. Now we see a growing number of Danish tourists coming to Syria, wanting to experience this beautiful country. People always leave Syria with big smiles on their faces and I believe that the personal encounter is the best and most efficient way of moving our two countries closer.

How many Syrians live in Denmark?
There are all together about 4,000 people of Syrian origin living in Denmark. Approximately 4 percent of the Danish population today is Muslim, who obviously enjoy the same civil and political rights in the Danish democracy as other citizens in Denmark.

Denmark has just released a new immigration law. Is it making it more difficult for Syrians to travel to Denmark?
Denmark is always in need of skilled people and globalisation means that people will be less bound by national frontiers. The new legislation will make it easier for well-educated foreigners to come and work in Denmark and it does not change the rules for leisure and business travel. That being said, Denmark has its rules when it comes to immigration as does any other country in the world and, being a member of the EU, there are also common European rules and regulations that Denmark needs to follow.

What are the fields of collaboration between Syria and Denmark?
I would like to mention the cooperation between Syria and Denmark in the field of cultural heritage and museums. We recently had a delegation from the Danish National Museum visit Syria. Also last year, an agreement on economic cooperation was signed between our two countries. We soon plan to also sign an agreement on educational exchange between Syria and Denmark.

How will Denmark sustain good relations with Syria?
Denmark wishes to have good relations with all countries in the Middle East. We have a mutual interest in present and future cooperation between our two countries and consider Syria a very important partner in this region. Regionally, we support a negotiated solution to the Middle East Peace Process, and there can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria.

This interview was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council

Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council comments on the integration of Muslims in Denmark.


Andreas Kamm


Do you think it is harder for practicing Muslims to integrate into Danish society?

I am sad to say yes. Statistics, however, show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down. Still, some Muslims say they feel that others have problems with them because of their religious beliefs and because they signal that they are Muslims.

How can Denmark change that?

I think that Danish politicians have a great responsibility. We need to work against creating a picture of the Muslim world as an enemy. Maybe 15 to 20 percent of the Danish people tend to say yes, [the Muslim World] is dangerous. So leadership from the politicians would be much welcome from our side.

What do you think of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei’s call for a ban on the niqab face veil and all Arab satellite channels in Denmark which they claimed keeps Muslims’ focus on their own affairs and prevents them from integrating into Danish society?

It is counterproductive. You can not force people to change their minds from one day to the next. Why should they? It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes don not care.

Denmark has recently introduced a new immigration law with stricter requirements for would-be immigrants. What do you think of the changes?

Actually we do not like it because it is so restrictive trying to keep people out of Denmark. I think that there is a very negative rhetoric performed by some politicians in Denmark. Dansk Folkspartei, for example, has a very negative influence on the immigration process in Denmark. And the reason why the party is so negative is purely political. We are moving towards an election so they [the politicians] cook up a lot of strange things to prepare for the election.

Interview with Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni

Raed Andoni

 “Palestinians are generally depicted in films in the West as terrorists, and in the Middle East as guerillas. In my films, I want to portray Palestinians the way they are. They’re simple human beings like anyone else in the world,” says Palestinian producer and filmmaker Raed Anduni, who broke those stereotypes of Palestinians in cinema. His work reflects, at the same time, their difficult and unjust everyday life under Israeli occupation, their difficulty in movement because of the crossings and checkpoints and their struggle to preserve their identity.

Out of all the Arab countries, you can only come across a “producer,”  in its internationally understood meaning, in Palestine. How was your experience as a producer?

It depends on what we mean by the word “producer.”Film productions in the region are mostlyserials, commercial films or “showcase movies,” if I may say that, which are valued by the amount of the profit they bring in. This commercial character of Arab film productions formed in local peoples’ minds an incorrect stereotype of the producer as an investor. But if we look at cinema from an artistic cultural perspective, as a tool to preserve the memory of peoples, we will find that only a producer’s passion for cinema can motivate him to work in film since working in any other area will get him much more profit than that generated by documentary filmmaking.

Perhaps Palestine is the leading Arab country in this domain simply because there is no film industry in Palestine. Thus, when Palestinians began to make films, they started it independently with auteur film.  The terrible living conditions in Palestine also play a major role in forming the country’s film production. The hard and unjust reality in Palestine triggers questions and produces contradictions that push us Palestinians towards a cinema that raises questions.

What did you study? From where did you get financing for your films?

I didn’t study cinema, I learned it from life. My story is like that of thousands of Palestinians. I studied business management but I was jailed before graduation.  Immediately after my release from prison, the intifada broke out. It was when I went down to the streets to photograph the intifada’s events that I had my first contact with cinema. Since then I’ve been working as a producer and filmmaker.

It’s my passion for cinema that motivated me to work in cinema, not studying. Filmmaking is not like a mathematical equation, if you apply it correctly then you get a successful film. Filmmaking requires high sensitivity, talent and passion.

As for financing, some young filmmakers manage to make films with little funding by borrowing cameras and asking their friends to volunteer in filming and montage. But in general, substantial funding is a must in case you wanted to make feature length documentaries. To do that, you need to find different financing sources, such as pre-sales to international TV channels, or applying for cinema funds, which are all foreign ones. Unfortunately, the only investment in cinema by Arab countries goes to film festivities and not to making films.

The government’s revenues should be spent on the nation. Intellectuals form an essential part of the nation and should be supported for their pioneer role in developing their countries. But I think lack of support for arts is closely connected to politics. Independent cinema is built on freedom of expression and Arabic governments only support voices that advocate them. However, this might change.

You started your career as a producer and later on turned to filmmaking with your film “Improvisation” (2005) which was a milestone not only in your life, but perhaps also in the history of Palestinian documentaries. Even though it’s a film about a country under occupation, it doesn’t tackle the Palestinian cause from a direct political point of view and it doesn’t resemble any other films. How did the idea of “Improvisation” occur?

Many Palestinian directors make films to let off steam. Instead of throwing stones at an Israeli army patrol, they attack the patrol and Israel through their films. But that’s not what cinema is about. The art of filmmaking is the art of storytelling. You can tell the same story in a hundred different ways.

The hard living conditions under Israeli occupation and the emergence of Palestinian cinema with the start of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s cinema production has transformed it into a cinema of slogans. And I am not undermining the importance of the PLO’s cinema productions here; those films form an important part of the Palestinian uprising. However, it took us Palestinians a while to realize that films should both challenge the mind and appeal to the senses. Thus, we must stay away from slogans and delve into the details. Cinema is about details. It should reflect the personal side of the story and not the big picture. Viewers relate to personal stories much more than general slogans.

I’m a close friend of the Joubran family (the main characters of the film), I witnessed the difficult birth of their trio and I was very much moved by it. I felt that their story had to be told.

“Improvisation” follows the Joubran trio, the well-known Palestinian musician family. It remarkably follows internal happenings in the family’s life: the development of the younger brother and his relationship with his older brother, the middle brother’s music studies in Italy, the trio’s attempt to give their first concert as a trio in Paris, and ending with the concert itself. How did you develop the film’s narrative? Did you strictly stick to chronology? How many hours did you film, and how long did the montage take?

It took a whole year to shoot the film. I self financed the first six months with the help of my brother and friends who brought equipment and volunteered in filming. We shot about 150 hours and used them later to promote the film and get funding. We signed a pre-sale contract with France’s ARTE TV, got production funding from Finland, Sundance Fund and from an Australian TV channel. Montage took another year.

I more or less followed the chronological order of events because I reflected the development of an 18-year-old young man’s character. Not doing so might get the viewers lost. I used the “fly on the wall” effect, leaving the camera as a neutral, patient observer that films reality as it is. The trio’s first music rehearsal and their first appearance on stage were really the first ones. However, I recreated reality by putting the brothers in certain circumstances that pushed them to talk about the things I wanted them to talk about.

My close friendship with the family also helped me to shoot the details of each scene with great intimacy and spontaneity. If I were a stranger to them, that would have been impossible. It was this intimacy that made the audience empathize with the Joubran family. Your relationship with the characters is what affects you the most in a film.

Your new film “Fix me” was screened at Dubai International Film Fest and Sundance. Could you tell us more about the film?

I believe that important films are the ones that look for new things. That’s why I tried to undertake an experiment by making a film based on a simple but at the same time deep idea that no one thought of before. I exposed myself to a complex psychological experience by attending psychotherapy sessions. I asked the cameraman to fix his camera behind reflective glass so that it wouldn’t spoil the spontaneity of the sessions.

This film is a complex one and very different from “Improvisation”. It raises general questions about life and sensitive issues that, unable to face them, people usually ignore. Its style also differs from my first film in that it combines elements of fiction and documentary films.

Are you planning to work again as a producer or will you continue with film?

I am ready to work in any field that excites me, so everything is possible. Maybe I moved away a little from production, but I’m still working in that field through my cooperation with my brother’s Film Production House in Ramallah. I’ve also established with my wife, French producer Palmer Badinier, a “Les Films de Zayna” production company which produces films from the Arab world.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.

Interview with Palestinian Jordanian filmmaker Sandra Madi

Sandra Madi

When Madi was a little girl she dreamed of studying international law, but she ended up specializing in athletics. It wasn’t long before she left the stadium behind, though, to enter the world of theatre, quickly becoming a well-known stage actress in Jordan. After receiving several prizes, Madi switched careers again. This time, the restless Madi studied creative documentary cinema in the Arab Institute of Film and quickly became a promising Jordanian filmmaker.

You’ve tried your hand at several professions before entering the world of cinema. Why did you ultimately choose filmmaking?

That’s right. I’ve loved theatre since my childhood and somehow I regard my turning to cinema as an extension to my artistic career. Furthermore, I even benefit from my seriousness and experience in theater and its human aspect in my cinematic work. Although theatre is a different artistic form, completely independent of cinema, many professionals who had been working for years in theatre ended up as filmmakers. One such director is the exceptional Tunisian filmmaker Abdullatif Kashesh, who began his career as a stage actor, then moved to theatre directing and has become now a well-established filmmaker. As to why I chose cinema, I haven’t got a definite answer! However, I can tell you that cinema gives me bigger space to express my ideas!

When you chose cinema, you chose documentary filmmaking in general and creative documentaries in particular. Why?

Creative documentaries are artistically and intellectually challenging! They are a condensation of life and reality from the filmmaker’s point of view. So are all films, not just documentaries. But the difference between them is that the latter is a “real” tale, while a fiction film is no more than an illusion that fascinates viewers for an hour or so.

Palestinian themes appear frequently in your works. In your films we meet a Palestinian boxer whose refusal to play with an Israeli sportsman ruins his career. We also find out about the fate of the guerilla fighters of the PLO. Why did you choose the Palestinian  Condition as the main subject of your films? Are you a fan of committed art?

All my topics are Palestinian. And it’s not only because the Palestinian case is undoubtedly a momentous and very compelling subject. What attracts me more are the vast memories of Palestinians that are yet to be told.

I think that growing up with a deep sense of loss – like all the Palestinians in the diaspora who were expelled forcibly from their homes – and not having the privilege of living in a homeland I could call my own, is strongly present in both my consciousness and subconscious.  This has inevitably affected the choice of my films. Of course, the stories that I highlighted in my films originate from my surroundings. From the refugee camp that I see and  about which I constantly heard stories even though I didn’t grow up in it. On the other hand, some of those freedom fighters that were literally discharged by their Palestinian leadership live here in Jordan… That’s what I see, that’s what surrounds me, and it is part of the Palestinian memory that hasn’t melted away in the course of time. It’s important because it forms a part of the Palestinian memory as a whole; it is like a mosaic piece. Each one of us has his own piece – his story – and this is what frightens the occupiers most, that the memory stays alive.

As for committed art, I don’t understand what it really means. What I understand is that any film that achieves artistic or intellectual distinction deserves to be seen. I don’t think that we could categorize films into “committed” and “non-committed” films according to their subjects. Of course by virtue of our emotion or sympathy, we are driven to believe that a film that is talking about Iraq or Palestine for example, or other issues of particular importance to us, is more important than other films, but this is not accurate at all.

You cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s MBC group in producing your last creative documentary, “perforated memory.” What is the nature of this cooperation, and how do you value your experience as a writer and director cooperating with Arab television?

Our cooperation was limited to production only. I submitted my project to a contest designed for independent Arab filmmakers by the MBC group and I won the first prize and thus I made a short version of the film for the television. However, it is the long version that participated in the festivals.

It’s good to have Arab televisions producing documentaries in collaboration with independent filmmakers. However, it is necessary to regulate the relationship between the producer and the director so that Arab filmmakers can have significant local support instead of having to turn to European producers most of the time.

But I think this is inaccessible for many reasons, most notably the lack of vision by those in power and the lack of specialists who can truly appreciate the importance of cooperating with independent filmmakers and supporting creative documentaries. It’s no secret that one of the main reasons behind the lack of support for documentaries is purely political. It’s because these films are mostly critical and require a high level of freedom of expression. When will we be ready to face all this? I don’t know and I am not optimistic.

Have you faced any technical or social difficulties as a woman filmmaker in Jordan?

I haven’t faced any gender-based difficulties or real obstacles, or at least not until this moment. The main obstacle I’m facing is a cultural one. It’s the widespread ignorance about documentaries in Jordan. Commercial cinema productions -mainly American films or the derivatives of them by Arabs or foreigners, like the Turkish soap operas for example – are all the rage in Jordan and the rest of the Arab countries. It’s this kind of film that investors want. This is drawing a false image of Arab societies, their culture and causes.

You said in a former interview with journalist Sarah Alqudat: “in order to alter the consciousness of others, we need a great deal of freedom of expression without internal or external censorship”.  To what extent can you get rid of these censorships?

It seems I was remarkably optimistic at that time. First of all, I don’t think we can alter the collective consciousness for the time being, or even just get close to that. Awareness accumulates, it doesn’t happen suddenly. Therefore, one, or even ten films can’t build the audience’s awareness. However, it might contribute to the creation of a critical approach at the best. But this also requires a viewer who is fond of cinema and seeks these films at film festivals. I don’t mean here Arab film festivals, which are held mainly for political propaganda and networking, or the mere duplication of International festivals. I mean a film festival that resembles people and addresses them. As for censorship, it is easy to get around it. Under these totalitarian regimes we try hard to avoid clashes with censorship. I am not very optimistic about changing this, because there will be no change unless these regimes change, or at least the mentality of those who run them changes, because they always level accusations against any artist who tells the truth. These regimes are fragile; they oppress their natives who perhaps love their homeland more than they do.

As a young director from Jordan, what changes do you want to see in the Jordanian cinema scene?

To talk about the cinema scene in Jordan, we need to understand the complex structure of Jordanian society and its social, cultural and political context which is, in my opinion, very special and worth looking into it. I’m saying this because I believe that for local cinema to be successful and outstanding, it needs to convey the local culture and the real features of the society it comes from. We still need a lot to achieve this. Of course, one cannot demand a lot, the scene is still developing. There are serious attempts by individuals that I hope will continue and garner support. Of course both The Royal Film Commission and The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (RSICA) play a major role in developing the infrastructure for a Jordanian film industry relying on local groups. In my opinion this is very important, but I hope they will be able to complete their projects and won’t hit up against the bitter reality of Arab film production that the majority of Arab filmmakers suffer from.

What is your next film project?

At present I’m preparing a long documentary entitled “Gaza Gaza.” I’m also writing my first fiction film project.

Filmmaker Sandra Madi answered my questions in writing.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.

Interview with Nidal Aldibs, director of Taming

15 years ago, Nidal Aldibs wrote a script about a young Syrian who loves a woman in defiance of her family. His fear of the family’s vengeance, however, overcomes his love and when they suffer a tragic car accident he runs away. Did she die? The young man and viewers alike start a nerve-wrecking journey to find out.  5 years ago, Aldibs witnessed his very same script happening in real life.  “Now who is going to believe me when I say my film Taming is not based on a real story?” Aldibs says with black humour.

What inspired your film?

The state of selfcensorship that we have reached today; It is no longer oppression, ideology and taboos that used to be imposed on us from the outside which are preventing us from achieving what we want. Rather, we have created our own censorship mechanism. Fear plays a big role in that.

The eagle representing freedom is only one of the many symbols and metaphors that you used in Taming. What do you think of symbolism in films?

I do not like to call it symbolism. I include in my films “things” with different connotations. This, I believe, opens new horizons for the viewers.

The style of Taming differs from that of your first feature film Under the Ceiling (2005), which goes at quite a slow pace, with little action if any. Can you describe your style in Taming?

Taming is built on tension. The film starts with one extraordinary action that triggers a question, which is not answered until the very end of the film. Other than that, there are no big actions in the film. Rather, lots of details. This is because I wanted to explore the inner side of people.

What challenges did you face in making the film?

To make a film like Taming you need an understanding producer who loves cinema. Fortunately, I could work with (Syrian producer) Haitham Hakki who is just that. Making a film with the small budget I had was challenging. I only had few days for shooting and could only work with a limited number of actors. But I enjoyed this challenge.

You mostly make fiction films. However, before Taming you directed your first documentary Black Stone (2006). Would you consider going back to documentary filmmaking or is fiction your ruling passion?

It really depends on what I have to say. A film’s message is what dictates its form. I might even end up making theatre. Why not?

Syrian drama television series are very popular in the region. The same could not be said about films. Why is that?

Because there is hardly any film production in Syria to start with. On average, only one or two Syrian films are produced per year. Ironically, these few films are better known outside Syria. This is because there are few cinema halls in Syria. Amman alone has twice as many cinemas as the whole of Syria. But even if there were more, not many people can afford going to the cinema.

Also, other Arab countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Lebanon, among others, have a bigger cinema production than Syria. Consequently, there is more interest in films, including Syrian ones. Even so Syrian films are not sufficiently promoted abroad. The only solution to this is the establishment of more private film production companies in Syria.

Two Syrian films made it to Abu Dhabi film festival this year. What do you think about that?

Taking into consideration the small scale film production that we have in Syria, I believe that having two films on show is quite a good number. I think that the quality of Syrian films does not match its production scale. Syria produces some of the best films in the region.

What does it mean for you to be here at the Abu Dhabi film festival?

On a personal level, participating in the Abu Dhabi film festival is very important for me. Other than film festivals, there are not that many film screening opportunities in the region. Furthermore, this is a chance to screen my film for a new audience and meet producers and distributors. This might open a new door for collaboration in the future.

This article was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi 2010, Abu Dhabi International film festival’s daily bulletin. Download pdf version here.

Interview with Syrian filmmaker Hazim al-Hamwi

Hazem al-Hamwi is a young Syrian who entered the world of filmmaking without any introductions or academic studies, and even without learning the “craft” from dedicated filmmakers. Working hard to “earn” his first home video camera, al-Hamwi carved out a place for himself as a documentary and experimental filmmaker in his local cinema scene. Today, nothing can hinder his steady and composed camera from crossing red lines and following his favorite theme: the place.

Hazim alHamwi


Syrian filmmakers always complain about censorship, which is considered by many to be one of the main reasons behind Syria’s limited film production. Yet, like many other Syrian directors, you managed in “Tufulet Al-Makan” to cross religious as well as sectarian red lines. Do you think self-censorship has become stricter than that imposed by the government?

Fear mostly originates from past experiences related to the prior history of a person or a group. But a fearful mind is unable to produce art. This, of course, does not mean that one should be reckless, but we often hear our government making statements about development and change, so why don’t we think positively and try to test that. Even if we only achieve part of what we want, we would still be creating more productive conditions for the upcoming generations.

As for censorship being the main reason behind Syria’s limited film production, I strongly oppose this view. With this, filmmakers are only making excuses for themselves. It’s enough to look at the great accomplishment of Iranian cinema in spite of the harsh censorship regulations imposed on their cinema industry to negate this view. Not to mention that censorship is a very loose term and I personally believe that indirect social censorship can be stricter than that imposed by the government.

Few Syrian filmmakers have been working as independently as you; it was only recently that you studied filmmaking in the Arab Film Institute in Jordan and most of your films are self-financed or lack financial support. How far can independent Syrian filmmakers go?

My working independently was the result of the lack of governmental support for cinema rather than a choice or an objective. I personally regard it as a reaction to the production problems and it has, therefore, its pros and cons. The downside lies in the stress caused by my being in charge of handling all technical, operational and executive aspects of the filmmaking process.

The positive side, on the other hand, lies in developing an active and productive mentality that doesn’t resort to mere “complaining”, but which finds solutions to face up to and change the status quo. After all, the reality that I am filming is much more important than the type of camera I’m using. By adopting this mentality, I reversed the spell by transforming my problems into strengths and my struggle into a source of respect.

It is also important to highlight that independent filmmakers need to have a means for survival and continuity. The government and civil society organizations should support filmmakers. Unfortunately, we have very few such organizations in Syria and most initiatives are undertaken by individuals. They deserve a lot of respect for that.

Syrian critic Khalil Sweileh wrote (Al-Akhbar /27 January 2007) that “the main characteristic of Arab young filmmakers’ films is the ‘uprising of the ego’”… and their moving away from “nationalist concerns that marked the past decades”. Looking at your films and at the Syrian film production at large, to what extent is that true?

I think it’s true. Even though many of the old Syrian films had a highly cinematographic language, they were overloaded with ideologies. This affected the film’s intellectual as well as artistic shape. As a result, they seemed sober, obscure, and had no sense of play, so to speak. Although this does not apply to all Syrian films, generally speaking this was the main characteristic of the first Syrian films.

Back to the argument of Sweileh, the ego will have the final say. It will find its way to express itself; to play, to distress and rejoice, make mistakes and succeed… I can see that in the works of my colleagues. While this might be unprofessional, it’s definitely healthy. I personally make films for the fun of it. It gives me a special sense of pleasure. That’s why there’s a lot of experimentation in my work because I enjoy working on the unexpected. Making a film is like going on an ego trip where you discover a lot of inner treasures. The ego is very demanding but it also has a lot to give.

You have recently been awarded a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in 2009 to produce the second part of your documentary “Tufulet Al-Makan.” Could you tell us more about the film?

“Tufulet Al-Makan” will be three parts and I will make the second and the third part with the grant funding. All three parts are depicting place, or rather the soul of the place, so to speak.

What are the Syrian, Arab or international films that had the biggest impact on you?

I was never influenced by a film as a whole. Rather, I was touched by some aspects of films. I admire, for example, the cinematography of “Kombars” by Syrian director Nabil Al-Maleh, the visual language of Osama Muhammad’s “Sunduk Al-Dunia”, the harmony in the Egyptian film “The mummy” by Shadi Abdel Salam and the rhetoric of Stanley Kubrick’s works in general.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.