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 Virgin Goat (Laadli Laila) by Murali Nair, India, 2010

Still from Virgin Goat (Laadli Laila) by Murali

Still from Virgin Goat (Laadli Laila) by Murali

Kalyan Singh had to sell all his land and goats to pay for his daughter’s wedding. All he has left is one goat. Her name is Laila and she is barren. Singh, however, refuses to accept this and goes in a desperate journey to find a mating partner for his beloved goat.

Virgin Goat (Laadli Laila) is much more than a simple “goat matchmaker” story though. Murali Nair uses his film to reflect the social, sexual and political challenges Indians like Singh face. The barren goat, in many ways, represents Singh and his inability to give and to move forward.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. Nair uses a lot of humour, spiced up with Indian mysticism, to lighten the weight of his message. He also cuts his film into different sequences, so similar to a TV series that I was almost expecting to see an ad break. This, together with the weird characters and dreamlike scenes, makes the story distant and unreal; it is as if the filmmaker was trying to remind his viewers that Singh is just a made-up character.

The story goes far beyond him to delve into the lives of rural Indians. When Singh has to confront the fact that Laila is barren, he loses his mind. It’s a rather predictable end for such an untypical story.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film fesival 2010’s daily bulletin by NISI MASA.

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.

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

“Bee Panic” in Abu Dhabi city?

With American filmmaker Taggart Siegel’s film about the effects of the declining population of honey bees on human life screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year, the “bee panic” has finally reached us in the Middle East. Or maybe not?

Stills from Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?

Stills from Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?

According to Einstein (or maybe it was not him who said it after all?), if the honey bee became extinct then man would only have four years left to live. In 2002, 40% of German bee colonies died. In 2006, 50% of bees in the USA died and according to all the “bee articles” I have read it has been downhill from then on.

But is not having more honey worth all this fuss? According to bee experts, as bees pollinate our plant-life, if they are gone then 40% of our food will be gone as well. So the world freaked out; are we going to die? Ok, not the whole world – we in the Middle East have too many wars right now to worry about bees. Tens of Western filmmakers have started the trend of “bee docs” – take for example The Last Beekeeper by Jeremy Simmons, To Bee or not to Bee by David Suzuki, The Last of Honey Bees by Jeremy Simmons, Vanishing of the Bees by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein and Colony by Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn, to name a few. The latter focuses on the human rather than the scientific or environmental angle of the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), or in other words the declining population of honey bees.

With Taggart Siegel’s Queen of the Sun, What are the bees telling us?, screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year, the “bee panic” has finally reached here. While most bee films create fear and anxiety, Siegel tries to touch the heart of viewers in his lighthearted and at some points even funny film. “Without inspiration, audiences will leave the theatre depressed and we won’t overcome the issues facing the honey bees,” the film’s co-editor and producer Jon Betz said. The film does include talking heads and lots of scientific information. Nonetheless, the animations, lively characters and hair-raising art scenes that Siegel incorporated in his film make it more accessible.

It is also clearly an activist film. That said, in spite of his obvious passion for bees, Siegel resists being too pushy and imposing solutions on how the viewers should save bees. Instead, he follows the typical American film recipe of a happy ending by presenting a cheerful image of what is being done for the “insects in distress”. Betz does hope though that their film will push the audience into action:

“It is tough to achieve change on a large scale, but by raising awareness you are actually achieving some change. If you choose not to eat pesticide-treated food, for example, that’s already a kind of activism.”

He has reason to be optimistic – in previous screenings, he has seen some of his audience members crying for the bees, and when after the screening he asked the audience his favourite question: “Now who wants to become a beekeeper?”, many hands were raised. But how many hands will be raised at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival? I doubt that people would be bothered, although according to expert consultant Gunther Hauk, they should be.

“We are seeing changes in climate but I think the Colony Collapse Disorder and the disappearance of the honey bee is a much more pressing, urgent problem to solve”, the expert says in Queen of the Sun,What are the bees telling us?.

For someone like me coming from a region that has been severely affected by climate change, this is rather shocking. Let’s face it though, with the growing political tension and economic concerns, environmental issues aren’t a priority for Arab audiences. So even if the film has a full house for its first international film premiere in Abu Dhabi, I doubt that there will be any “would-be beekeepers” crying.

This article was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin by NISI MASA.

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