Ulla Jacobsen
Jacobsen was previously editor in chief of the DOX Magazine from March 1998 until early 2009. A lot of the DOX articles republished in ModernTimes was ordered by her. After 2009 she worked freelance, until she died in 2013.

For the first time ever, a Syrian documentary project was pitched at the Amsterdam FORUM and was one of the most successful pitches to boot. Broadcasters queued up to land a deal with Proaction (the Syrian production company) and Final Cut (the Danish co-producer)

DOX met the Syrian producer and director in Copenhagen right after FORUM.

Two months after Proaction went to FORUM to pitch its project – with funding already guaranteed from Jan Vrijman Fund, the Danish Film Institute and the Danish-Arab Media Forum when they arrived – this Syrian production company has now signed contracts with YLE Teema (Finland), SBS (Australia) and TSR (Switzerland) and is in advanced negotiations with the BBC, ARTE and Danish, Canadian and Belgium channels. Many other channels have also shown serious interest.

Women’s Rights and Arab Identity

fulla_proThe project they pitched that aroused everybody’s interest is simply titled “Dolls” and the main character is the Fulla doll, an Arab equivalent to Barbie. The black-eyed, decently dressed Fulla was “born” in 2003 and has already surpassed Barbie in the Arab countries. According to the synopsis, “Fulla is the ideal woman for any wife-seeker: Fulla is the ideal Arab Muslim virgin, a decently covered girl, who was raised to become a respectful, obedient wife, seeking both her family’s and society’s approval.” A Fulla cartoon runs on the pan-Arab cartoon channel SpaceToon and little girls are bombarded with this female ideal (à la Barbie in the West).

Right after FORUM, director Diana El Jeiroudi and producer Orwa Nyrabia travelled to Copenhagen where DOX met with them to talk about their project and documentary filmmaking in Syria.

Diana explains her intentions in making the film: “This doll, Fulla, is so much celebrated, it has huge sales. Parents encourage girls at a very early age to have such a doll. It stands for an identity, an Arab Muslim identity and the doll is promoted according to this identity. They are commercialising a female identity associated to Islam. I am using Fulla as a metaphor or vehicle to tell the story of all women in Syria who are fighting for their identity, but do not have the right tools. It is not really about Fulla, but about women and young girls. They are attacked by the marketing and the values, the social bonds. There is the family, society and religion, but the women pay heavily for this.”

It is no coincidence that Fulla was created in 2003, after tension between the Western and Arab world had started to rise, as Diana explains: “Fulla is a post 9/11 thing. After 9/11 our whole identity has been criticized and humiliated, associated with terrorism. It affects people much more deeply than you think, it is really getting inside the society, this outside view of us. People are fighting to have their own identity. At the same time everybody is turned into consumers. When Syria was opened it turned to consumerism, everybody wants to speak English. The marketing manager in the film chose to speak English instead of Arab. The film is both a criticism of women’s rights and also of the media’s consumerist influence on people.”

Getting to FORUM

As documentary production is almost non-existent in Syria, it is quite an achievement that the project made it to FORUM. Diana and Orwa explain how it happened: “We met Tue Steen Müller [EDN’s director at the time – *ed.] and Isabel Arrate Fernandez from the Jan Vrijman Fund in Beirut in November 2005 [at the Docudays festival – *ed.]. Then in the summer of 2006, we went to Copenhagen and Tue introduced us to several Danish producers. One of them was Mikael Opstrup from Final Cut Productions and we decided to work together. Isabel showed the project to Swiss sales agent First Hand Films, and Esther van Messel contacted us to say she was interested. The Danish editor Ghita Beckendorf came to Damascus with Mikael to edit a pilot. Tue encouraged us to apply for FORUM. We got the right kick at the right moment”.

“The international co-production will mean that we can make it better technically. The sound-mixing and colour-grading will be done in Denmark, which is good, because it can’t be done properly in Syria. The co-production also creates a credibility amongst us, a belief in ourselves. They are not our tutors; it is a partnership. We hope the broadcasters who come on board will respect the director’s free voice. We will make different versions of course, but hopefully not radically different.”

Diana El Jeiroudi

“Dolls” will probably be fully financed by funds and broadcasters in Western Europe, yet it is important for Diana and Orwa to have it shown to domestic audiences in Arab countries as well. And they believe it will be eventually, on the more liberal pan-Arab channels.

Syrian Production Reality

Orwa explains, “Syrian TV is not interested in creative docs. We hope to get it shown on the pan-Arab channels. It is not so much the money from Arab channels that matters, but the importance of getting it shown there. Channels like Al-Jazeera will want to watch it first. It will be difficult because the film is critical.”

Syria used to be much more open in the ’70s, as Orwa recounts:

“In the ’70s there were more companies, they closed in the early ’80s. In Damascus there were cinema clubs, international workshops with big names. But the dictatorship in the mid-’80s forced them all to close. Now it is time to come back.”

And Orwa expects that the drama productions will lead the way to more openness: “In Syria a few years ago, all that were made were very poor drama productions: TV soaps. They were financed by the government. Then the producers went to the Gulf countries and produced drama with more money, and suddenly the Syrian drama got very popular in the Arab world. Now they produce a lot, and this has also meant that the censorship became less strict. People started to talk about more critical issues on TV. The government had to compromise. The commercial aspect makes freedom. We need to become commercial as 20 million Syrians are not enough for a profitable home market. But with the whole Arab world as audience it becomes very profitable. One day documentary will go the same way, but it takes time, so much time.”

Orwa and Diana regard themselves as a new up-and-coming generation of filmmakers. They chose the name Proaction for their company because “it is a pro-action, not as much political action but rather film action. Life in Syria has been very idle, we got sick of this ‘we cannot do anything’ mentality flourishing in the previous generation. We are tired of the pessimism. We want to get out of that.”

They have already shot 60% of the material for “Dolls”. They plan to finish the film by late July.