Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

«Bosnia & Herzegovina needed a significant festival of documentary films, and now I hope we have it»

AJB DOC: Modern Times Review spoke with its Director Edhem Fočo on the history and impact of Al Jazeera Balkans, the kick start to its Industry Days platform and more.

Organized annually by Al Jazeera Balkans, in cooperation with Al Jazeera Media Network and Al Jazeera Media Institute, Al Jazeera Balkans Documentary Film Festival (AJB DOC) is an international documentary film festival and platform for the TV documentary format.

For its fifth edition, the festival will be held between 9 – 13 September in Sarajevo, presenting 25 films across the festival’s four programmes. This year, AJB DOC Film Festival also launches its Industry Days platform, aimed at supporting the development of documentary film production around the world, including international and regional co-productions.

Ahead of the festival, Modern Times Review spoke with its Director Edhem Fočo on the history and impact of Al Jazeera Balkans, the kick start to its Industry Days platform and more.

AJB Doc Film Festival Welcome

In your words, describe your role as festival director. What would you say is your primary responsibility?

I see myself more as a coordinator. I tend to give general direction for each festival edition regarding selection themes, guests to be invited, training, master classes and media relations. But most of the actual work is done by my colleagues, young yet very experienced professionals.

In terms of the festival itself, what position do you say that AJB Doc Film festival holds in the broader regional and continental documentary festival landscape?

AJB DOC is still a young festival. We have had four editions, and two of them were during pandemic times. Nonetheless, it still grew into a very respectable festival and has already nurtured its audience. We have great interest in filmmakers, producers and distributors who love to be a part of our festival, and all our screenings are usually attended by authors as well. Our selections are very limited, and I think that is where one of our advantages lies: there are almost no overlapping showings, only 12 films are selected for the main competition and around 20-25 in total. They are the best of the best, and this can be seen from the fact that three winners were later nominated for Oscars (Of Fathers And Sons, For Sama, Writing With Fire). But it is also great for the general public, as they are not swamped with too many films.

This region has some great festivals for documentary films, such as DokuFest or ZagrebDox, Makedox, etc. Bosnia & Herzegovina needed a significant festival of documentary films, and now I hope we have it. We feel that we are a great addition to this fraternity, and our more prominent visibility, especially in the region, helps other regional festivals as well.

For those who are unfamiliar, can you also speak a little about the Al Jazeera Balkans channel? Perhaps some may not be familiar with this channel division based on the European Continent. And how did the festival become a project of the wider AL Jazeera Balkans platform?

Al Jazeera came to the Balkans more than a decade ago when it felt there was a void in terms of international news players in the region. We used lingua franca of people living in the area of the former Yugoslavia. We were the first channel since the war where various dialects and accents (they are now called different languages, but that is just politics) were used in all of our reporting. I guess it was the right move, as Al Jazeera Balkans is now the most distributed channel in the Balkans and its existence prompted other international players to come in. Now we have Euronews, Newsmax and Bloomberg in local languages, and CNN-affiliated channel N1, so I guess we were the pioneers and are still charting the course for others.

As far as the AJB DOC festival is concerned, it felt natural for us. Al Jazeera Balkans is the absolute leader in producing and broadcasting documentaries in the region, so we felt that we should give the city of Sarajevo a specialized documentary film festival. As of now, it looks like it was the right move.

Al Jazeera Balkans is the absolute leader in producing and broadcasting documentaries in the region, so we felt that we should give the city of Sarajevo a specialized documentary film festival.

In 2022, AJB DOC Film Festival will officially launch an industry programme. What can you tell us about this side of the festival? Why did you decide to start this? How will it be constructed? What are its goals?

Our sister channel, Al Jazeera Documentary, was with us from the very beginning. They watched our festival grow and realized and embraced its potential. They were the first to suggest that we should organize Industry Days. We accepted the idea and roped in Al Jazeera Documentary to provide financial awards and their expertise. The idea is to focus on developing films from South East Europe and the Caucasus, as well as the Middle East and North Africa. We will see how its first edition will unravel, but the initial signs look very promising, and the projects selected for the first edition of Industry Days are very serious projects by inspiring authors. We divided the Industry session into three categories: Main Pitch, Work-in-progress and Balkans Stars. Balkan Stars is reserved only for films from the former Yugoslavia and will give preference to short documentaries, whereby the first two categories will focus on feature-length films from all regions mentioned above. We are providing financial coproduction awards of over 80,000 euros, in addition to many in-kind awards by our partners.

For you personally, was there a seminal documentary film, filmmaker, or filmography that kick-started your interest in documentary film?

To be honest, I started paying attention to the impact of documentary films when Al Jazeera Balkans started broadcasting eleven years ago. The feedback from the audience was very good for the news and current affairs, but even better in terms of the documentary section. A couple of early films we did with a very basic budget (less than 10,000 euros) became very popular with the public (each with hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube). Then I realized I should put more focus and attention on the documentaries. And I have been doing that ever since.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He writes for some platforms and does some other things as well.

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