Top Arab filmmakers Diana El Jeiroudi, Raed Andoni and Mohanad Yaqubi joined an IDFA industry discussion this week to discuss the place of Arab documentaries in the wider film world, both in terms of finding finance and producing partners as well as audiences.
The panel was part of the festival programme Shifting Perspectives: The Arab World showcasing sixteen classic and new Arab documentaries including the opening film All About Amal, Andoni's Ghost Hunting and Omar Amiralay’s 2004 film A Flood In Baath Country.
The opening remarks of Beirut-based moderator Rasha Salti, a respected film curator who has programmed Arab films for a number of festivals and institutions including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, made for a telling introduction. "One of the first things I had to learn is to mediate Arab cinema to non-Arab audiences and then to mediate Arab cinema to Arab audiences," she said.
"The Arab world has been, throughout the twentieth century, a region where there have been many conflicts, a region where there is a history of colonisation and decolonisation, and also a region where cinema came extremely early, with images of the Arab world produced early on, especially of Palestine, but also a territory of projection," she continued. "With Arab cinema, the idea is that Arab filmmakers and artists produce their own representation, on their own terms."
Salti noted that the rise of digital technology had radically altered the Arab cinema scene, opening it up to people who previously would not have had the opportunity to be filmmakers.
The big question at the heart of the debate was whether and how Arab filmmakers should connect with collaborators and audiences outside the region.
Palestinian producer and director Mohanad Yaqubi, whose directorial credits include Off Frame Aka Revolution Until Victory, said traditional co-production deals favoured by European partners did not always work for Arab feature productions being made on small budgets.
Using the example of Palestinian artist Basma Alsharif's experimental first feature Ouroboros, inspired by her experiences in Gaza during a Israeli military offensive on the strip in 2012, Yaqubi demonstrated how more fluid, less formal cooperation sometimes worked better. He explained how he preferred to build an international team around informal collaborations, rather than trying to go through official co-production treaties. "I love to build a team in a vagabond away, bringing on cinematographers, sound designers, in an informal way rather than going through the paperwork of co-production deals which can take a lot of time," he said.
Lead producing under his Idioms Film banner, Yaqubi also bought Belgian company Luna Blue Film and Sweden's Momento Films on board Ouroboros, as well as support from the Arab cultural fund AFAC and the Doha Film Institute. "We brought what you need for an artist to have a space in which to work," said Yaqubi.
Syrian director and producer El Jeiroudi recalled how difficult she had found pitching Dolls: A Woman from Damascus at the Forum, even though it had helped the feature on to an international career.
"I don't know, perhaps Palestine is more internationalised, but I am part of a generation of filmmakers that emerged in the 1990s who were not educated at film schools in Russia or Eastern Europe or France. We were not formatted. We were very uncultivated. The shift from my first to second feature documentary was huge for me."
Header photo: Joke Schut