Syrian filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia

The fourth edition of Damascus-based Dox Box International Documentary Film Festival featured, among others, a Syrian Competition as well as a campus for upcoming filmmakers from the region. Both showed that there is a lot to be gained from the various initiatives organisers Diana el Jeiroudi and Orwa Nyrabia have taken over the past few years. Established in 2008, Dox Box is aimed at showing and promoting creative documentaries in the Arab world. Dox Box started its campus two years ago, and this year fourteen young filmmakers from Algeria, Egypt, Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Syria participated with projects varying from early research to post-production, they were offered individual coaching, consultancy, seminars and presentations. The first seminar was directed at the difference between cinema and television. Festival programmer and filmmaker, Orwa Nyrabia, discussed the various ways in which the two differ from each other. Topics included television’s alignment with reality and actuality and cinema’s alignment with the imaginary; the reception situation of both media; cinema as social event; television as flow; and how to find an audience for documentary screenings. In the seminar about benefitting from new technology, American campus mentor and cinematographer/filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, and digital artist/CG director/VFX supervisor Chadi Abo discussed various cameras and how to decide on which one to use.
According to Johnson no camera is what you want it to be and she in particular encouraged the campus participants to think ahead, try each others’ cameras, experiment, and see which one works for them. Both encouraged the participants to find information and examples online. Abo in addition advised the use of programmes with as few parameters as possible for compressing the material. Abo also participated in a seminar on 0-budget productions, with producer Katia Saleh. Strangely, 0-budget production was approached as a style; to me it seems more a necessity in terms of production. Saleh’s first film was 0-budget and she now works on the low-budget, 37-episode, internet drama series Shankaboot, which has an audience-produced spin-off called Shankactive. All in all, “it’s the idea that matters” was the message. Examples of how to work for 0, or next to 0, included using social media or marketing, asking friends to help out, and using open source software.

Al Jazeera’s documentary channel producer Mohammed Belhaj addressed acquisition and how to work with broadcasters. Al Jazeera’s documentary channel produces about 260 hours of documentary annually and takes all formats. It deals with directors and producers and searches projects aimed at a broader Arab audience. Belhaj had to face some serious questions about the channel’s apparent demands with respect to form and its unwillingness to give filmmakers advance payment with which to start filming. On the last point, he hid behind company policy. The final seminar was dedicated to distribution and sales, with German producer/ distributor/sales agent Stefan Kloos talking about the difference between distribution and sales, what sales agents can do for films, what it takes to monitor the market, the various stages in marketing and selling a film, selecting films to work on and rights and licenses. In addition to these seminars, the Screen Institute Beirut, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and the Sundance Institute all gave presentations.

Bassel Shehade. The 28-year-old filmmaker who was born and raised in Damascus was said to be bursting with life. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

At the end of a very full week, a pitching session concluded the campus, with three grants available for the projects voted most promising by the professionals present. The TAMKEEN Grant for best Syrian project went to the project Brakes by Bassal Shehade, in which three women take up the unusual activity of riding their bicycles in Damascus, something considered improper for women but a liberating act of resistance nonetheless.

«Al Jazeera’s documentary channel produces about 260 hours of documentary annually»

The Dubai Film Connection Award for best Arab doc project was awarded to My Uncle the “Terrorist” by Elias Moubarak, a search for his mother’s favourite brother: poet, lawyer, and high-profile terrorist. EDN Head of Studies and campus mentor Mikael Opstrup added a year-long membership of EDN to the grant. The TAMKEEN Grant for best Arab doc project went to Karima Zoubair for her project A Woman with a Camera, about a Moroccan woman who provides for her family by recording parties and celebrations – but also finding the freedom to make her own money, being confronted by her unemployed husband, and facing her daughter’s wish to follow in her footsteps instead of getting a proper education. So these young filmmakers can continue on the road to realizing their projects, hopefully inspired by a week full of talking, thinking and watching creative documentaries. That an initiative like the campus is necessary was unfortunately proven by at least half of the films in the Syrian competition.
The festival competition featured six Syrian documentaries, ranging from 7 to 82 minutes. The films also ranged greatly in quality but having said that, with respect to the goal of screening creative documentaries, the selection is understandable.

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