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.

Deal with Cancer

Deal with Cancer portraits Saitan al Wali, a prisoner from the occupation of the Golan Heights who spent 23 years in prison, being excluded from a prisoner exchange with Israel because he held an Israeli passport. The film is mostly a sequence of interview sections, sometimes filmed from two angles and in extreme close-up. It only touches upon the physical struggle against cancer Al Wali is in, but overwhelms the audience with an oral account of his mental struggle.

Alsharaani is another interview-based film about calligrapher M. Al Shaarani. The film tells his life story and his approach to calligraphy, now associated with religion and the Koran as well as with political banners. Al Shaarani uses it for expressions and philosophical texts.

Hazim alHamwi

There are some beautiful examples in the film but many unfortunately are not translated. The shots of Al Shaarani writing are accompanied by the sound of his pen shrieking on the paper. The interviews, with Al Shaarani and unnamed others, are mostly in extreme close-up, which, in all honesty, is not always a pretty sight. The constant noise of traffic outside contrasts sharply with the refinement and concentration calligraphy requires. But it is also distracting. All in all, the film is rather all over the place in style. What is missing most in these two films is an idea of the added value of the director.

The same goes for the film that won the DOX BOX-Soura Award for best Syrian documentary, Waiting for Abu Zayd by Mohammad Ali Atassi, a portrait of the late scholar from Egypt. Abu Zayd was an eloquent academic with a good sense of humour who defended a more contemporary interpretation of Islam but was accused of apostasy. Although it is a joy to listen to him and his wife – and both have important things to say – the film is not much more than a sequence of interview shots (again in significant close-up and again not always a pretty sight) and of the seminars Abu Zayd took part in.

The audience in the Damascus theatre applauded Abu Zayd´s words, which made watching it an unusual experience. But in essence, it was not a film we were watching. In Dancers with Walls, filmmaker Eyas Al Mokdad follows Swedish choreographer Mari Brolin Tani and her dancers from various countries in the Middle East as they rehearse and perform The Seventh Wave. Of course, there are plenty of practical obstacles to overcome, but there is also hope, perseverance and humour. Camera, sound, editing, and narrative leave much to be desired but Al Mokdad at least tried to interweave several story lines, separating images from sounds and letting the interviews speak for themselves, something that was rare in this competition. The shortest film was made by Ali Sheikh Khudr, whose City of Emptiness lasts 7 minutes. It’s a small poetic film which first brings us to a ruined castle on a hilltop, exploring its holes, crevices and well, and then to a city, firstly looking down from above, after which we leave looking back through the rear window with a classical music accompaniment. The film ends with a photo of six boys that conveys a profound sense of loss.

«Strangely, 0-budget production was approached as a style»

The best film in this competition in my view – and in any case the most creative one – was Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise by Soudade Kaadan. It’s a journey through old Damascene houses and their inhabitants’ stories and includes tales of the old city, the past and the present. It is also a denunciation of the impoverishment and inevitable loss suffered by this Unesco World Heritage site. By including different generations in the interviews, emphasis is placed on inheritance from one generation to the next. Kaadan’s images are well chosen and carefully framed. She uses animations to represent the mythical stories about Damascene houses, accompanied by fairy-tale piano music.

For anyone even slightly familiar with this old city, it is a joy to watch. It will take a while for the initiatives of El Jeiroudi and Nyrabia to bear fruit to this level. But the Syrian competition showed that they are not redundant. The campus participants were all eager to learn and soak up information, feedback and films. Their enthusiasm will certainly not be the problem.