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.

Review of Pink Saris By Kim Longinotto UK/India

Red might be the colour associated with revolt around the world, but in India it’s pink. Kim Longinotto follows the “Pink Gang”, a group of women who wear pink saris as a symbol of their revolt against their society. At least that’s how they introduce themselves at the beginning. But you soon find out that they are victims of domestic violence, rape and social exclusion rather than revolutionary figures.

With nowhere to go, they gather at the house of Sampat Pal. Loud and aggressive, Pal has made reconciling these women with their families, husbands and lovers her mission. She goes as far as threatening families and quarrelling with the police to set the women’s lives right, although it doesn’t always work. Not only does she fail to help the women, but she also risks her own marriage.

I don’t like where you are going! You want to be famous so be…. I like to be as small as an ant”, her angry husband murmurs while threatening to leave her. Pal does enjoy playing the role of the “messiah of women”, and constantly reminds the violated women (and the viewers) that they have no one else but her, to the extent that you are no longer able to appreciate her work.

Shot with a hand-held camera, the film moves from one violated woman’s story to another without allowing us enough intimacy to sympathize with them. As a result, the film seems more like a series of reportages wherein people are numbers rather than real humans. The intensive use of text to give background information about the women distances you even more from them. All that remains in your mind are their pink saris.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi 2010, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin

Q&A with Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould, the directors of Shout

The sacks of labneh, olives, salt and sugar that the anxious mother is piling in her child’s suitcase are growing at an astonishing rate. “He’s travelling to Damascus!” explains the Golani mother with a weary smile; although only a few kilometers away, studying in Damascus is a life time journey for Syrians living in the Israeli occupied Golan.

“Shout” follows two young Golanis as they cross the shouting hill that separates the Golan from Syria for the first time; the hill which they often visited to catch a glimpse of their relatives in Syria and shout to each other their news.

I interviewed Dutch directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould to find out more about the film.

Why did you choose the Golan as the topic of your first film?

When I first heard stories about the Golan and the Shouting Hill, I was very intrigued. I started doing research and met a lot of young, enthusiastic students living in Damascus: extremely nice people, but it was obvious they were different from most of the Syrians I had encountered. These young Golanis have difficult choices to make and in Damascus they are once again confronted with their strange reality. Having just turned eighteen, they choose to study in their homeland, but it has great consequences: they have to leave their loved ones behind. And this happens again when they finally have to leave after graduation.

Yet, the Golanis remain optimistic, and interested in the world around them. Most stories we see and hear in Europe about the Middle East tend to be very sad, portraying battered victims and evil enemies. This results in the region seeming incomprehensible for the European public in large, who are tired of the conflict and have begun to turn their heads away from what they consider to be a hopeless situation.

In our documentary, we wanted to tell a different story, one that is more recognizable for people all over the world. Young people from the Golan are just as ambitious and full of dreams as young people all over the world. In a sense they are victims, but our main characters have a lust for life, even though they must live with the daily consequences of the political power play.

There was an intimacy between you and the film’s main characters, how did you achieve this?

That’s a difficult question to answer: how does one explain social contact? We had to find some kind of balance between friendship – fooling around, having some fun – and a working relationship. In the end all we did was simply try to be honest and open, sometimes explaining why a scene was important for us. We showed them who we are and so did they. Ezat and Bayan are natural talents: open to the idea of being filmed and remarkably relaxed with the crew, but they weren’t craving for media attention. That tends to be a good combination.

3. You used a film camera in shooting your film which limits your filming time because it’s much more expensive than video cameras. To what extent did that force you to have staged scenes in the film? And how many rushes did you shoot?

In total we shot 99 rolls of 16 mm film. That’s about 990 minutes of rushes, so more than 16 hours in total.

Shooting on film demands a different way of working than with video. For sure, it has disadvantages – you might miss that one precious moment – but the advantages were greater. You have to be extremely focused when you’re shooting, very aware of what you want to get from every scene. It forced us to think about every shot, and although that took days, weeks, months of talking (being two co-directors who had to agree on everything) it protects you from simply filming everything and ending up with almost nothing.

The adrenaline rush of a 10-minute film roll rolling through the camera makes not only the crew, but also the characters live up to the moment. The good thing about video is that more people have the opportunity to make the film they dream of making, the downside is that you tend to stop being critical and think you will work things out in the editing room. A good filmmaker knows very well what he or she wants and shooting on film forced us to make decisions.

As for staging scenes, it’s a myth that while making a documentary, everything just happens in front of your eyes, by chance. Every filmmaker organizes scenes to some extent and so did we; in that sense using video would have made no difference. However, every single idea for a scene came from reality, from what we’d seen or heard during research or shooting.

For example, we’d heard that Ezat had to scratch all Hebrew labels off his shampoo bottles and decided that that was an interesting way to start a packing scene with him. In that sense, we would have shot on video in the same way. Perhaps the pressure was indeed greater during interviews: we had to make sure we got to the point quickly because there’s no time to beat around the bush.

4. Did you face any difficulties in making your film?

Of course, the list is endless! It was a very long process, and many problems rose: technical problems, a lack of funding despite the fact that the situation for documentary filmmakers in Holland is paradise, time pressure… We couldn’t be in Damascus all year long, so perhaps the hardest thing was capturing what was happening in our main character’s lives during the short periods that we were there.

For example: when Ezat and Bayan only just arrived in Damascus, we spent 48 hours desperately seeking them. Time was passing and where on earth were they? The second time we arrived, Ezat’s grandfather had died. It was clear that this was an important moment in both Ezat and Bayan’s life, as they had only just found a flat together and now things had changed.

It was a difficult thing to puzzle out how to explain what had happened, when some key moments had already taken place. It was also crucial that we were so lucky to be able to work with a production team from Syria – without them we could never have made the film in the same way. And, despite the fact that we love them dearly and are grateful for the way they welcomed us in their lives, it was also sometimes difficult to work with our characters, as they weren’t always so keen on our presence. We spent hours convincing them to let us shoot certain scenes.

On the other hand, funny, silly things happen, like for instance the scene shot on the water basin. It is very high, almost 10 meters. Sabine can be fearless in many ways but also very scared of heights. It was one of the first scenes and she wanted to keep her cool towards the main characters. But when we had to climb up these narrow stairs, and crawl on top of the basin, it wasn’t cool at all.

6. “Shout” will be premiered in Syria in DOX BOX international documentary film festival, how do you think it will be received here?

We are very excited that our one and only premiere is in Damascus, it’s an honour for us and the best place to show the film for the first time! We hope people will like it… We think it’s interesting to show it here because some subtle details in the film might not be picked up by a Dutch audience but will be understood here. The Syrian public is aware – at least to some extent – of the situation in the Golan and it’s sad to say, but a lot of Dutch people have no clue and don’t even know where it is. So for sure it will be a different screening experience.

Above all, we hope to get some attention for the ironic situation of Golani students living in Damascus, for a short but crucial period in their lives. On one hand, they are offered a “lifetime opportunity” but for various reasons, it’s not a happy-go-lucky adventure at all.

5. Where else will “Shout” be screened?

On the 28th of March, the Dutch premiere will take place at the Movies That Matter Festival in the Hague. Later on, the film will be shown on Dutch television and the Arab satellite channel MBC has shown interest in the film. We are applying for festivals around the world and hoping to travel a lot with the film.

Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould answered my questions in writing.

This article was published in the first issue of “Point of View” DOX BOX 2010 documentary film festival’s bulletin.


Interview with Argentine’s Laura Bari, director of Antoine

A sensitive and poetical portrait of the life of Antoine, a five years old blind detective boy who swims, paints and drives a car.  He is integrated into the regular school system in Montreal, with unprecedented success.

“Point of View” sat down with Laura Bari to find out more about the film.

Laura Bari and Antoine

Laura Bari and Antoine

While a documentary, “Antoine” is to a certain extent a fiction film; it’s the brainchild of Antoine’s imagination and dreams. What was the idea behind making this film?

When an object exists, it’s reality. When a person exists, it’s reality and I believe that when an idea exists, it’s also reality. Unlike documentaries, fiction films are invented. But inventions, at the end, are a recreation of reality because all the elements of an invention already exist so to invent or imagine something all we need is the ability to combine real elements to recreate reality.

In Antoine, we get into this little boy’s mind. The film is built on a dialogue between what he can see through his imagination and what we can.

In your film we see Antoine experimenting audio-visual arts like painting and music, playing detective and searching for clues along with other sighted children. These are activities that many blind Syrians don’t take part in. How important it is to integrate art to childhood in general and to that of the blind in particular?

Children are educated in a very rational way that destroys their creativity. When I met Antoine for the first time I asked him “what do you like the most”? He said “I would like to drive a car.” So I gave him the keys to my car. He was astonished! “What else?” I asked him. “I want a mobile.” So I gave him my mobile and told him detectives drive cars and answer mobile calls, so why don’t we play detective? “It’s impossible!” He thought. But he could make it! Through playing detective I wanted to break this boundary between reality and imagination to set him free.

I wanted him to learn to overcome his boundaries. Just like the African slaves who were taken to Brazil. Their legs were heavily chained which prevented them from dancing so they created salsa and merengue.

Creativity is an association between things you don’t associate. In the case of Antoine, he painted with colors that he couldn’t see. But still he could imagine them by associating the colors with things he knew. Orange and green, for example, are his favorites because he can taste them when eating oranges and lemons.

Although blind, Antoine was capable of engaging in all the activities other children did. He plays sport and he even took part in the schools run race by sticking to a cord. This helps him gain more confidence.

Antoine used to fear cat and dogs. But at the end of the movie he touched a horse for the first time in his life. And it’s because art that he gained this confidence.

Some people criticized the film for being too long and repetitive. What do you think?

I wanted the structure of the film to be similar to that of a 6 year-old child’s personality. I’ve been studying the structure of personality and the influence of art and immigration on it. At this age children can switch from reality to imagination in a minute. You scream so they imagine you as a monster. Next minute you tell them let’s go eat so you become their mother or aunt. In my film I wanted to celebrate children’s ability to switch between the two because once you grow older you can’t do it anymore as people would consider you schizophrenic. Furthermore, children keep repeating the same things so that’s why I repeated some scenes because I wanted the film to be coherent with the child’s rhythm.

“Antoine” is one of the rare documentaries were the characters take part in the editing process. Antoine collaborated to the soundtrack creation by capturing and choosing sounds making the film more than a simple portrait of him. What was the editing process like?

He worked with me all along. He was my sound man and my technician. He put the pieces of the camera and the microphone together. He could put the batteries faster than me. In some cases I even let him take decisions.

Antoine had a rare thirst to learn. We should give him and other kids like him the possibility to do so. We have to treat blind children like kids not like sick people. They are different but who isn’t? We are all different and it’s our job to find a way to integrate.

This article  was published in “Point of View” DOX BOX 2010 documentary film festival’s bulletin.

Review of “Enemies of Happiness” by filmmaker Eva Mulvad

Enemies of Happiness

Denmark 2006, 58 min

Director Eva Mulvad

If you received constant threatening messages and therefore had to constantly change your house, survived four assassination attempts and had to face defamation campaigns, would you still run for parliamentary elections? If you were Afghanistan’s Malalai Joya you would!

Using fly on the wall method, Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad invites us to accompany “The most famous woman in Afghanistan” as BBC described Joya in her nerve-wracking campaign in 2005. What makes the campaign all the more important is that it’s the first parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in 35 years and the first elections in which Afghani women were allowed to vote.

 But the film is not only about Joya. Mulvad sheds light on the effects of the continuous war and worn out traditions on the people of Afghanistan in general and women in particular. We are introduced to a woman who is forced to leave her children or else endure the abuse of a drug addict, aggressive husband, and a teenage girl who is being forced into marrying an 80 year old murderer, opium dealer with 2 wives and 13 children because he has weapons and is threatening her family to kill her and them otherwise!

She unveils a harsh reality in which men dance in bullet rain, grandmothers are raped, people are burned in containers and a candidate for the parliamentary elections can’t go anywhere without the protection of armed soldiers.

But viewers be aware, there’s no sob story here! Enemies of Happiness is the story of a 28 year-old woman who had the courage to stand up for her rights in a conservative country which is ruled by aggression like Afghanistan and won the second largest number of votes from her nation. It is a peerless example of how women, even if covered in burkahs, can achieve their own freedom.

Published in Point of View Dox Box Documentary Film Festival’s daily bulletin. To download the daily bulletin in both Arabic and English click here