The rise of documentary making across the Arab world

The Arab documentary section at the Dubai International Film Festival shows an impressive and important evolution of regional storytelling.

A scene from the film Amal’s Garden. Courtesy DIFF
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There are several examples of how the region’s major film festivals have expanded in both size and scope over the years. The quality of the workshops, the established names now appearing on the juries and the number of films in the schedules that have been financed through the festivals’ own initiatives are just a few. But perhaps the most noticeable area of growth has been in the regional documentary section. Each year, across Abu Dhabi, Doha and now Dubai, the Arab documentary category has showcased a broader and increasingly impressive range of stories and storytelling.

The Dubai International Film Festival, which closes today, gathered perhaps the most striking selection across GCC film festivals yet, with 16 titles in the competition covering a wide spread of subjects and geographies.

“Last year, I think we had a very strong documentary programme, but this year it’s stronger,” says Erfan Rashid, the festival’s director of Arab programming. “And there are so many female directors this time. Actually, most of the documentaries in this festival this year have been directed by women.”

The 16 chosen were an eclectic mix of titles. The Scream, by Khadiya Al Salami, dealt with the protests that took place last year in Yemen, but from the perspective of the women who took to the streets in a country where they are almost forbidden to speak out. The film showed that despite playing an active – and attention-grabbing – role in the uprisings, women are still tied down by strict conservative values. The aftermath of the Tunisian revolution was the subject for It Was Better Tomorrow, from Hinde Boujemaa, in which the central character, a homeless woman called Aida, describes how little has changed since the toppling of Ben Ali last year, and she still faces the same prejudices as before.

This more microscopic focus on the wider revolutions that engulfed the Arab world last year has become something of a common theme. “Too many documentaries last year were talking about Tahrir Square,” says Rashid. “But this year, the directors went behind Tahrir and tried to the discover the lives of the people, the effect of those revolutions on people and how much the revolutions forgot about the people for whom they were being done.”

Nidal Hassan's experimental True Story of Love, Life, Death and Sometimes Revolution began as a story about women's lives in Syria, but when the uprising broke out (the day after the director arrived in Damascus last March) turned to documenting women across the country fighting for freedom.

Such messages are hugely important for the world to see, says Michael Apted, the renowned British director who headed up this year’s documentary jury panel.

“What’s so interesting about coming here is seeing this whole different voice. There’s so much rawness and power to it. What’s at stake is so incredible and dynamic and big,” he says. “It’s exactly what I was hoping for. I didn’t want to see copies of western docs with their enormous skills and elegance. Sometimes you just want a film that deals with something. What’s important is that there’s a real passion to it. Every single one has had that energy.”

Away from the revolutions, Dance of Outlaws, by Mohamed El Aboudi, considers the plight of women across Morocco who have been rejected by their families and live without identities. It's central character, Hind, was raped as a minor and subsequently threatened with death by her strictly conservative parents. The film follows her as she battles to maintain a life and dignity for herself and her child.

“In the town where I used to live we have hundreds of women like this,” says El Aboudi, who is now based in Helsinki. “Having lived in Australia and Finland and seen the democracy and the dignity people have, and you turn back to your own country and see that there are people who don’t exist. She doesn’t even have an identity. How come? This is the question that I really wanted to explain.”

El Aboudi says following his film’s premiere at the Locarno Film Festival, there are now NGOs working on the issue in Morocco and even the Finnish ambassador is getting involved. “It makes you really happy that at least you did something. It might not do much, but it makes people aware.”

Another eye-opening film was Infiltrators, the debut feature from the Ramallah-based artist Khaled Jaffar. Experimental in nature, the film unravels a series of methods used by Palestinians to battle from one side of the illegal Israeli Wall to the other; either through underground sewers, over the top and even through holes (a particularly impressive scene sees a boy squeeze 1,000 pieces of ka'ek bread through a small hole in just two hours).

“The Israelis can’t put soldiers everywhere,” says Jaffar. “It’s like a game of cat and mouse.” And the director explains that the spirit of resistance is such that there are no concerns his highlighting of the methods in his film will only benefit Israeli security intelligence. “One smuggler told me that they would keep smuggling even if they built 1,000 walls.”

With technology making documentaries increasingly cheaper to produce, it’s clear that they’re becoming an efficient means to get a message or story out there relatively swiftly.

“In the developing world, I think they’re a much stronger currency in communicating that doing movies, which are expensive to make and distribute,” says Apted. “There’s some immediacy about it – some of these films here are showing events that happened two or three months ago.”

While Apted says that he hopes the world becomes interested in these Middle Eastern voices, "because it would be helpful to show that we're not that different", there are promising signs already. The Virgin, The Copts and Me by the Egyptian filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh premiered in 2011 in Doha and has since gone on to screen in Berlin, Cannes and New York. With the right push, many of this year's crop of titles could well go on to receive similar international recognition.

But as the output of regional documentaries continues to grow, it’s only going to make the job of the festival programmers more -difficult.

“This year was a very, very good year for Arabic cinema. Choosing the film wasn’t an easy thing and just because some didn’t make it doesn’t mean they didn’t have a good film,” says Rashid. “I just hope to have this difficulty every year.”