Arab Cinema

The Dawn of a New Documentary Film Culture

Whoever still thinks that film culture in the Arab World consists mostly of Egyptian soap operas or films for the intellectual elite has some catching up to do. During the past few years, Arab interest in documentary film has made significant strides.

By Christina Förch in Beirut

&copy DocuDays Beirut 2004
Scene from the film 'Cine Caravane' at the Beirut documentary festival DocuDays 2004

​​Just six years ago, theaters stood almost empty as documentaries from Europe, the USA and the Arab world were screened at the first Beirut documentary film festival, DocuDays.

Very few film students in Beirut were interested in shooting documentaries. And when they did, the quality left something to be desired: "Traditionally, the Arab realm is simply not a culture of images, but one of words," explains the director and founder of DocuDays, Mohamed Hashem. "Most Arab documentary films consist of interviews that are illustrated with random images."

Resounding response to DocuDays

Three years later, the festival already boasted some 5,000 visitors and hosted a competition, an international jury, and several workshops addressing production requirements, form and content in the documentary film genre.

Many films were submitted from Arab countries as well, although their quality was still not quite up to international standards.

"My marketing manager took a shared taxi one day during this year’s festival, and the driver asked him if he was going to DocuDays. As it turns out, the taxi driver had visited the festival with a colleague the day before. He then proceeded to discuss the films we were showing with my assistant – that was really super," Hashem relates enthusiastically.

He doesn’t under any circumstances want his festival to be the kind of event that interests only a small elite group of intellectuals, journalists and film fans. Instead, he wants to find a way to attract even more taxi drivers, workers and normal everyday people to his festival next year.

It’s true that a mass documentary film culture is still a long way off. But Hashem’s festival is expanding steadily year by year. Hundreds of videos and film reels submitted from all over the world are stacked up in his Beirut office.

More and more regional productions

Many of the films come from independent filmmakers in Europe, America or Japan, but also from Korea, India and Latin America. The Arab productions are either films made for foreign release or for Arab television.

Since about a month ago, Hashem has been busy working at a second job – he is in charge of organizing a new festival and a film market in Qatar for Al-Jazeera’s documentary film channel.

He will be the one selecting Arab directors and producers to participate in this event. Twelve projects are to be presented at the festival – making this a unique opportunity for Arab filmmakers to negotiate directly with programming executives to produce their documentary films.

"Just a short time ago, Arab television stations were purchasing foreign documentaries to fill up their broadcasting slots," reports Hashem. "But now all that has changed. Today, stations like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya produce their own programs – and show them during prime time."

Back when Al-Jazeera was still discussing whether to establish a special documentary film channel, a subsidiary of the MBC Group called O3 was already producing its first documentaries for the news channel Al-Arabiya as well as for MBC.

Focus on the Arab world

During its first year on the air, O3 already shot over 60 hours of documentary material on country-specific themes in Saudi-Arabia, Iraq, Palestine and other Arab states, with a clear focus on current political events in the region.

But there was also room in the line-up for series about former terrorists, missionaries or Arabic calligraphy. "Since 9/11 we have been increasingly looking at the relationships between people in the Arab and western worlds as well as the debate on terrorism," reports Mohamed Soueid, production director of the documentary film department at O3.

Every year, Al-Arabiya holds a workshop in Dubai for Arab filmmakers. Projects and proposals for documentary films are submitted, and these concepts are then developed further during the several days of the workshop.

Workshops as career springboard

"This kind of workshop is especially interesting for young talent," notes Soueid. He views the workshop as a launchpad for young filmmakers. "For many, it’s the first time they have shot a long documentary film destined for broadcasting."

But the opportunity to have their films shown on Al-Arabiya is not the only benefit for the filmmakers. The workshop also gives them a chance to meet international coproduction partners, for example, European television stations.

"Inter-Arab coproductions unfortunately do not exist on the Arab television scene," Soueid explains. Every station produces its own programs. This means that the budget per film is usually low and more demanding productions fall by the wayside. "Besides, it was hard at first to convince the program executives that they could make money with documentaries."

Nevertheless, Al-Arabiya has succeeded in marketing its own productions abroad and has even noticed "increasing interest on the part of the European stations ARTE and ZDF and Japanese broadcaster NHK."

Al-Jazeera will try to follow a similar strategy with its new documentary channel. "For our first year, though, we would like to limit ourselves to only a few productions in order to gain some experience and test how the whole thing works out," says Hashem.

Programming criticisms

Independent filmmakers are critical of the fact that both major satellite stations limit their documentaries too much to purely political themes. They also claim that the program executives exert a direct influence on the content, and in the worst case even resort to censorship.

"Actually, the current situation does not look very promising for independent productions," complains a filmmaker who did not wish to be named. "So our only option is still really to look abroad for opportunities."

And, as everyone knows, that is anything but easy. Very few Arab talents have managed thus far to stand up to the international competition.

But Hashem remains optimistic. He firmly believes that conditions for documentary film in the Arab realm will continue to improve – and that the quality of the productions will benefit as well.

Christina Förch

© 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

For more information on the Beirut documentary film festival DocuDays, click here.

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