A particularly moving Industry Talk took place on Tuesday at ITA, where IDFA Guest of Honor Laura Poitras led the conversation with representatives of the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk (IFCR): IFFR Director Vanja Kaludjercic, ICFR coordinator Sara Ishaq and IDFA's Artistic Director Orwa Nyrabia.
The panel reflected on the first three years of ICFR's existence, during which it went from dealing with several individual cases a year to suddenly trying to help whole communities of filmmakers in countries like Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Nyrabia opened the talk by saying that this is one of the most important topics to IDFA and to Guest of Honor Laura Poitras.
"In this talk we're talking about extreme situations, where colleagues of ours are being persecuted and threatened in different parts of the world. It's most unfortunate that we can't focus only on one country. But over the past few years, cases of persecution of filmmakers are spreading like a pandemic in different places and filmmakers are being faced with extreme accusations and receiving very harsh sentences.
"So now I want thank Laura for initiating this, because it's usually Vanja and Sara and me and other colleagues at ICFR who call to say, hey, we'd like to say something. For the first time it was the guest who said, I want to talk to you about this. So thank you. It's truly very meaningful."
After the applause, Nyrabia gave the floor to Egyptian producer Moataz Abdelwahab, who was recently imprisoned for two years, to deliver his keynote.
"I've been dreaming about this moment for two years and I thank you all. I have been in prison for 25 months, for 772 days. But let's not get into painful details. First of all allow me to thank ICFR, Orwa, my partner Sherouk Salousa, who is sitting there, and others who I don't necessarily know personally, for all the support they gave me and my family during this time," he said.
"I was born and raised in the ancient city of Cairo and lived all my life in the city. Reading and cinema were my only passion. When I was in prison, books were my only refuge, the only way to escape the painful reality. In prison, I would use my hands as if they were a lens and imagine I was filming on set. I read about 300 books and one of them really spoke to me: it was a Sudanese novel called Drowning, by Hammour Ziada. I decided then that I was going to adapt it for the screen, and now I have acquired the rights and I am on my way to kickstart the project.
"All acts of state violence restricting creative expression need to disappear from this world, because art, in my opinion, is the soul of our world. And without it, we go extinct. After my experience, I am now a firm believer that creativity is born out of suffering. And as the French poet de Musset said, 'Nothing makes us great except great pain.'
"From my position here, I want to declare my support for any artist and creative being punished for their art. I hope we can raise our voices for Iran so that Iranian artists can have their freedom. And I hope that the war in Ukraine comes to an end. It is every artist's duty to document their experience because some day it will be a testament to a time long gone. These testaments will be stories and films in which we ourselves are the protagonists.
Finally, as a friend said, I did not forget, I did not forgive, but I've certainly moved on. There are many ways to survival. Thank you."
Next up, Kaludjercic reiterated ICFR's mission and principles, and said that they have been learning as they went, realizing that every case is different, with its own parameters and sets of circumstances.
"Since its launch, ICFR has advocated for filmmakers from Myanmar, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, and of course, most recently, Ukraine," she said. "So in a very short time frame we have dealt with a few individual cases and then immediately got engulfed by filmmakers and entire communities being under threat, like in Afghanistan, who are still in peril. And then the war in Ukraine broke out," she said.
The situation in Ukraine is something ICFR has never dealt with before, and they felt it's the utmost priority to help the filmmakers there. So they set up a fund and raised donations from around the world, gathering €400,000. They opted for micro-grants to help as many people as possible, with a Ukrainian coordinator on board, and in the end about 400 filmmakers received assistance ranging from €1,500 to €15,000.
"What was truly heart-warming was that there were community-based initiatives to support the fund that we could see around the globe: screenings in Japan, Ireland, Berlin, Amsterdam to rase the money for the fund itself. From ICFR actions, a natural grassroots response emerged, and this is not something that we actively asked for, but it came to us," Kaludjercic said.
A big supporter was in the audience: Yoshi Yatabe, a programmer for TIFF, who raised about 10% of the whole amount through screenings in Tokyo.
Nyrabia next reflected on the case of Afghanistan, which, as he said, put their organization face to face with its limitations. There was no way to raise money so they activated colleagues around the world to mobilize, lobby, and connect Afghan filmmakers with different authorities around the world so that they could get relocated.
Nyrabia then asked Poitras to reiterate the main points about her own experiences with persecution and censorship, and films she picked for her Top 10 selection, with a particular focus on Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film from the Master Talk she held at IDFA.
This led to Nyrabia sharing his own experience with incarceration in Damascus in 2012, and how important the support of the international community was for him.
"I could have died very easily. Tens of thousands died. I don't have any evidence that any of the 85 young men who were with me in the same cell were ever released. I could have been tortured physically, but I was not because so many colleauges around the world raised their voices defending me, starting from my partner Diana El Jeiroudi—to the extent that those jailers and torturers were baffled. They didn't understand. ‘What the hell? Who are you?’ I didn't understand why they were asking me that, but I realized something must be happening," he recalled.
"The power of this community is not to be underestimated," he continued. "That regime didn't care about pressure; it cared about its image in the eyes of filmmakers. The value of this feeling that you are not alone is not to be underestimated. It could very easily be that all the campaigning of all filmmakers around the world has no impact on the decision of the regime, but it has an impact on me: it makes me stronger, it makes me feel I am not alone. This is truly a very powerful contribution in itself."
More and more filmmakers are at risk, not just for making films, but now for even thinking about making them. The Turkish producer Çiğdem Mater has recently been sentenced to 18 years in prison for preparing to make a film about the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Kaludjercic read out the letter Mater sent to ICFR:
"Dearest IDFA team and festivalgoers, I am writing to you from a woman's prison in the heart of Istanbul. We don't get much of a chance to watch films in the jail where women from all corners of the world are being held, and as you can guess, each woman is a story unto her herself.
"That I write to you from a prison instead of watching films with you today in Amsterdam is a whole other story. If it was a documentary, you'd say, no way! I've been sentenced to 18 years in prison for thinking about making a film regarding the 2013 Gezi Park protests. You heard that right, there is no actual film—just talk of it.
"When you look at today's world, it's actually not that shocking. From Tehran to Budapest, Kyiv to Moscow, Kabul and refugee camps, our stories and circumstances are quite similar. In the time when racism and discrimination are on the rise worldwide, we find the strength to still make films despite all the evil. I guess that's thanks to filmmaker colleagues who stubbornly continue to tell their stories and their incredible solidarity that knows no borders. Your voice and support are overcoming great prison walls and barbed wires. I'm sure those filmmakers imprisoned in other cities across the world, who are continuing their underground resistance are also hearing your voice. Sending you my love and thanks as I dream of the day we can talk only about films."
Photo by Coen Dijkstra.