Doc Revolutions in the Middle East: The Al Jazeera Festival

28 mins read

It’s my only free day in Doha and I’m scanning the tourist brochures in the hotel lobby, searching for something that doesn’t involve perky guides and air-conditioned buses. Al Jazeera has flown me halfway around the world, from my Peruvian mountain home to the desert sands of Qatar, to attend their annual film festival. After four days of films, seminars and bar hopping, all conveniently located in the Sheraton hotel, I’m eager to get out and explore.

There’s an overnight desert tour where I can ride camels or sand buggies and sleep under the stars, or go scuba diving in the Persian Gulf. I could also catch a short flight to Dubai to go shopping in the Middle East’s version of Las Vegas. But for a media junkie like me, there’s no contest; I head for the Al Jazeera channel in downtown Doha.

For those of you who might want to check out the station, a warning: it’s tougher to get into the Al Jazeera compound than to enter most countries. Before setting foot inside the main gate, you need to arrange for a special pass from someone ‘on the inside.’

A stern-looking guard scrutinizes my Canadian passport as though it might be a fake before handing me my pass. The document looks like a visa to enter a foreign country, with my name, occupation, passport information and authorization typed in swirling Arabic, and adorned with official-looking stamps and signatures.

I bid goodbye to my taxi driver, who’s not allowed past the main gate, and walk across a large parking lot with cement awnings shading the SUVs, BMWs and Audis from the crushing desert heat.

After a brief but sweaty hike, I reach the second security point. Inside, I’m confronted with the standard airport security measures: my bag is scanned by an X-ray machine and I walk through a metal detector, all under the watchful gaze of a serious-looking African guard.

A minor incident ensues when the guard realizes I don’t have a special pass for my laptop. “No laptop pass, no laptop,” he keeps repeating, despite my pleas.

Apparently, laptops are potential weapons of mass destruction and I’m forced to leave mine with the guard.

The tight security is no surprise. Al Jazeera’s probing and uncensored coverage of events happening in the Arab region has earned them many enemies, often from opposing camps. The network’s logo, in Arabic script, means ‘the opinion and counter opinion.’ Since the network’s launch in 1996 with an Arabic-only news channel, Al Jazeera has shocked, affronted and inspired viewers, covering issues that would usually be banned by media in their home countries.

Most recently, Al Jazeera has provoked the ire of authorities in several Middle Eastern conflict zones for allegedly fomenting the ‘Arab Spring,’ the wave of pro-democracy revolutions sweeping the region.

“We’re not a particularly popular channel with many governments,” says Heather Allan, head of newsgathering for Al Jazeera’s English channel, with a wry smile. She runs through a list of countries where the station has been banned or refused journalist visas: Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria. A large white board on Allan’s wall lists the whereabouts of her correspondents, written in erasable ink so that she can adjust their ever-changing locations.

Allan explains that Al Jazeera reporters are often incognito, filming with everything from Handycams to cellphones. And the station relies a lot on what Allan calls ‘citizen journalists’—footage, photos and information from bloggers on the ground.

But Allan admits that sometimes their interview subjects go missing for speaking out against repressive regimes. A look of concern passes over her motherly face. “We’re very mindful of what we’re doing and how it affects people,” she says.

Al Jazeera’s own reporters also put themselves at great risk. As I leave the station after my tour, I notice a large poster hanging inside the station’s front gate calling for the release of four reporters held hostage in Libya. (They have since been released).

The network is funded by the emir of Qatar, which frees the station from the commercial demands that have sent many media outlets into economic crisis. Despite—or perhaps because of—being funded by Qatar’s progressive emir, Al Jazeera is recognized for editorial independence in a region known for stringent censorship.

The network’s documentary channel has helped foment a revolution in the world of Arabic filmmaking, giving rise to a young generation of Middle Eastern doc makers intent on pushing the genre to new limits. The channel produces 250 hours of programming a year and acquires about 1,200 hours from around the world, drawing in three million viewers a month.

The popularity of the doc channel has spawned Al Jazeera’s annual film festival. The screenings are free and open to locals, but few attend the dizzying array of over 200 films shown throughout the city. Most of the audience is made up of the 300-plus festival guests: producers, filmmakers, non-mainstream television broadcasters and festival organizers from the Middle East and around the world.

The festival centre is the famous five-star Sheraton Doha, where guests are lodged in expensive Arabian Nights–style kitsch. Built in the shape of a giant pyramid jutting out of the Persian Gulf, the stark white hotel looks like the hideout for a James Bond villain. Inside, the architecture is even more frightening. The lobby is styled in a kind of Cleopatra does Palm Springs: towering open spaces, Turkish domes, Lawrence of Arabia tents and large potted plants.

Visiting filmmakers who want some exercise can get a workout by trekking from the lobby to the conference rooms or one of several restaurants and bars (including a Latin American disco) or the underground shopping complex, with a bank, hair salon, massage clinic and fancy boutiques. There’s also a jogging course, pool, sauna, fitness centre and tennis courts.

As the hotel manager says, there’s really no need to go outside at all.

Feeling rebellious, I venture onto the streets of Doha and discover the manager was right—the rest of the city mirrors the Sheraton: shopping malls, hotel bars and fitness centres. And inside, I don’t have to face the 40-plus-degree heat. From taxi to restaurant to shopping complex, this desert has been air-conditioned.

Doha is a good example of the danger in handing architects limitless budgets. The skyline is a mismatched array of gleaming new skyscrapers, hollowed-out construction sites, car parks and tennis courts. My favourite building is a tall, phallic silver tower that looks like it’s covered in smooth chain link, with a needle-antenna sticking up in the air. There’s also an almost-finished replica of the twin towers in homage to the country’s friendly relations with the U.S.

Where are the chaotic, narrow, winding markets, the beat-up second-hand cars, the camels and Bedouin shepherds? Even the city’s traditional market has been torn down and rebuilt in a Disneyesque version of local culture: no dirt, no nasty smells and definitely no camel droppings.

Doha’s Fantasy Island atmosphere is worlds away from the conflicts that unfold on the conference-centre screens. One can see award-winning movies like British filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s Pink Saris, about Sampat Pal Devi, a charismatic Indian woman who leads the ‘Pink Gang’ to combat violence against women. Or Tears of Gaza by Norwegian director Vibeke Løkkeberg, with horrific footage of the 2008–09 Israeli bombings of Gaza, shot by Palestinians.

But for me, the most exciting aspect of the festival is the chance to meet new and upcoming filmmakers from the Middle East. The region has been convulsed by civil uprisings, revolutions and authoritarian repression. In the midst of this chaos, social media has emerged as a force of unity and hope.

One of the most experimental films about this subject is The Green Wave, by Iranian director Ali Samadi Ahadi. The film uses animation, blogs, Twitter and cellphone photos and videos to portray the pro-democracy protests in Iran after the hotly contested 2009 elections. For the revolutionaries, green is the colour of hope; it is also the colour of Islam and it became a symbol for the prodemocracy movement.

Ahadi fled to Germany as a teenager, where he still lives today. Filmmakers who remain in Iran face censorship, repression and worse for expressing opposition to the fundamentalist Islamic government. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Iran, along with China, as the world’s “worst jailers of the press.” According to the group’s 2010 report on press freedom, 34 journalists were in Iranian jails and 29 journalists fled the country that same year.

An Iranian who works in the film industry and requested anonymity told me that filmmakers who want to stay out of prison have to be subtle in their portrayal of Iranian society. Renowned director Jafar Panahi was given a six-year prison sentence and banned from making films for 20 years just for planning to make a film about political unrest in Iran.

Despite the ban, Panahi made a documentary about his house arrest called This is Not a Film. The movie was smuggled out of Iran and has gained wide attention on the festival circuit. International pressure, fuelled by the film’s success, hasn’t won over Iranian officials, however. Panahi recently lost an appeal against his sentence and his co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, was arrested along with five other filmmakers for providing the BBC with material deemed critical of Iran.

With veterans like Panahi and Mirtahmasb in jail, many young Iranian filmmakers are developing a more understated style. There’s Loghman Khaledi, for example, who screened his first film, Mobile in Tehran, at the Al Jazeera fest. The film is a poignant, humorous and bittersweet short about the loneliness pervading modern Iran.

In an attempt to escape their isolation, the film’s protagonists turn to cellphones—often with dangerous or fatal results, such as the car-crash victim who writhed in pain while onlookers snapped photos on their BlackBerries and iPhones rather than come to his assistance. Or the failed young actor who has earned underground fame by producing short video clips for cell phones. For the actor, mobile phones are a way to bypass official channels and reach the public directly. He relishes the clandestine nature of his communication.

The film has an intimate feel, as though the protagonists were speaking to a close friend, instead of the camera. After meeting Loghman at the festival, it’s easy to see why. Quiet and shy but intense, he seems like one of the characters from his film. I imagine him spending hours alone in an editing suite, reviewing footage and connecting with his characters in their isolation.

Loghman’s success with Mobile in Tehran enabled him to make his first feature-length documentary, Moving Up, which went on to win best first film at FIDMarseille last July.

The film recounts the story of a garbage collector who dreams of becoming a novelist and loses himself in literature. Nicolas Féodoroff from FIDMarseille (Festival International du Cinéma Marseille) characterized the film’s protagonist as an “ambassador of forbidden hopes struggling against the dampening conformism of a society where everyone is obliged to remain in his place.”

Another example of Iranian subtlety can be found in Mohammadreza Farzad’s profound and lyrical film Into Thin Air. Deeply personal, the film is Farzad’s search to fill in the gaps of the Black Friday Massacre during Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

The director was less than a month old when government forces loyal to Iran’s Shah fired on Islamic protesters in Tehran’s central Jaleh Square, on September 8, 1978. The exact number of dead and missing has never been determined, and just a few seconds of footage from the massacre have been made public.

Farzad analyzes the massacre clip in painstaking detail. It was shot by an anonymous amateur camera operator. The director rewinds, fast-forwards, watches in slow motion, trying to pick out faces in the crowd. Farzad’s narration, poetic yet simple, reminds me of one of his own idols, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.

The government-approved footage doesn’t allow us to get close to the protesters or events. Farzad is unable to find the faces he craves in the short clip—the identities and voices of the revolution—so he fills them in himself with archive photos, footage previously unseen, testimony from one of the victim’s fathers and a visit to the local cemetery. The film is a courageous, beautiful quest for truth and memory in a nation in which history has been suppressed.

Farzad launched the film at the Berlin Film Festival this year and is in the midst of the international circuit. In the meantime, he’s researching a new essay film on Iranian weddings, using footage from real wedding videos to explore the “bittersweet” nature of relationships. His biggest obstacle is funding.

Iranian independents have difficulty finding funds for their projects as many of the usual avenues are closed to them. The government has published a list of funds to which filmmakers are prohibited from applying, including the Ford Foundation. Distribution is also a challenge, since most doc makers are independents and there are few Iranian distribution companies.

Alireza Rofougaran hopes to open up avenues for independents in Iran and has started up a small distribution company called His own first film, Chasing Che, played at the Al Jazeera Festival and nearly 40 other festivals, from Sydney to New York to São Paulo and Pyongyang.

Don’t be mistaken, however; this is NOT another biography of the much-documented Latin American revolutionary. Chasing Che is Rofougaran’s personal, four-year odyssey following Che’s footsteps in an attempt to understand his own life.

As a young man, Rofougaran immigrated to the United States and became a successful businessman. But, as he told me, he realized “most people spend their lives trying to make a lot of money but they don’t enjoy it. I didn’t want to waste my life following around pieces of paper, so I decided to follow Che.”

Giant posters depicting current events in the Middle East hang outside the festival screening rooms. Rofougaran and the other Iranian filmmakers are drawn to one in particular: a larger-than-life Egyptian protester during the country’s recent revolution.

On the final day of the festival, we pose in front of the poster, taking photos of each other. We’re soon joined by filmmakers from across the Middle East, eager to have their photo taken with the anonymous protester.

Events in Egypt are a rallying point for filmmakers here—proof that film, video and social media can make a difference. While snapping our tourist photos of the revolution, we’re approached by Mona Iraqi, an Egyptian filmmaker and real-life revolutionary.

Iraqi is frighteningly tall with large, gorgeous eyes, expressive features and fashionable clothes. But this high-heeled beauty is also a guerrilla filmmaker: Iraqi spent 18 days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square this past January, filming protests that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

Her film Friday of Departure was awarded first prize at Egypt’s Cam film festival in April. This short doc on the Egyptian revolution exposes the bias of the national television station by juxtaposing footage of the peaceful masses in Tahir Square with television commentary accusing the protestors of being part of an international conspiracy.

Iraqi says she didn’t intend to make a film and produced it without outside funding. She was working on another project in the Sudan, but when events in Egypt exploded, Iraqi rushed back and began shooting the protest, not knowing what would happen.

When I ask her if she was afraid while filming the protests, she shakes her head in a defiant “No.”

“We knew we could die,” she says. “We were prepared. Everyone in that square was ready to die. It was worth it.”

A Palestinian filmmaker standing nearby adds that ‘when Egypt stands united, the Arab world stands strong,’ quoting a popular refrain from the revolution’s youth movement.

The filmmaker is Jordan-based Ahmed Adnan Al Ramahi, a self-professed ‘troublemaker.’ Al Ramahi was invited to the festival to pitch new projects with the channel’s producers, and today he is glowing. Al Jazeera has just commissioned several new programs from him, including a film about Jordan’s cultural revolution, where youth are using social media such as Facebook, blogs and the internet to press for change.

“We’re fighting for things that you consider basic in your part of the world,” says Al Ramahi. “Like the right to elect our government.”

In his day job, Al Ramahi conducts video and media training with Palestinian refuges in Jordan. Participants are given cameras and encouraged to document their own lives and make films and videos. He is both filmmaker and media activist—one of the forces behind Jordan’s social revolution, and also one of its chroniclers.

After the festival’s closing ceremony, Al Ramahi and I escape the officious pomp to sip beer with other filmmakers around the Sheraton’s pool bar. Lights flicker on the oil rigs out in the Gulf, the moon shines above and the air is full with the fragrant smell of desert flowers and the sound of pop tunes from the ’80s. It feels like paradise (even with the hokey music), but we all know that our luxurious bubble is only temporary.

Tomorrow, we will fly back to reality, with its funding shortages, government censors, social upheaval and secret police. Looking around at the relaxed and smiling faces of my companions, I wonder what dangers await them.

My mind is flooded with disturbing images from my visit to the museum at the Al Jazeera station. The network’s staff have been suffering persecution since the first broadcasts in the mid-’90s and the station’s museum has become a shrine for reporters who have fallen in the line of duty.

There’s the vest worn by Tariq Ayoub at the time he was killed when two US missiles struck the Al Jazeera Baghdad bureau in the early hours of April 8, 2003. And the outfit worn by Sami Al Hajj, the Al Jazeera cameraman who was held in Guantanamo Bay for six years without trial: his crisp white trousers, white running shoes and white socks looking stark and empty.

Even more moving is the Red Cross letter from Al Hajj to his wife, two years into his detention. In broken English, written in a hurried scrawl, he asks her to please bring their young son, Mohamed, to Qatar. During his detention Al Hajj suffered torture, inhuman conditions and sexual abuse, and yet his one desperate hope was to assure his family’s safety.

Unfortunately, the museum is constantly expanding. The day after I leave Qatar, Dorothy Parvaz, a journalist with the Al Jazeera English-language channel, was detained in Syria by government officials and secretly deported to Iran. After a frantic international campaign, she was finally released in mid-May, after 19 days of detention.

The first three days of her ordeal were spent in a Syrian jail cell, the walls smeared with blood, eating fetid food and listening to the sounds of young men being tortured. “We could clearly hear the interrogator pummeling his boots and fists into his subject,” she wrote in a blog after being freed.

Reading about Parvaz from my quiet home in the mountains of Peru makes me worry about the fate of the Middle Eastern filmmakers I met at the festival. Are the Iranian filmmakers all right? Was Al Ramah in Palestine when that bomb exploded? Is Iraqi still filming in the streets of Cairo or has she returned to the Sudan?

Although I can’t keep track of all their daily movements, I know that they and scores of other Middle Eastern filmmakers are there, behind the headlines, filming the protests, the forced detentions, the ordinary and extraordinary people working for change. It is somehow comforting to know that these brave filmmakers exist, that their numbers are growing, and that not all of them can be silenced.

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