In the current issue of DOX Magazine, just released and currently available at the EFM lounge at the Berlinale marketplace, I have three articles published which I will "reprint" here on this blog. Even though these festivals happened in the autumn of 2010, I think the themes are still pertinent enough to share now. I hope you agree:
As part of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s extensive and impressive program this year, there was a strand that focused on the Middle East, a place rife with underground work. While some of these films are certainly getting a bit of play at some of the larger Middle East fests, making and exhibiting independent documentary in the Arab world is a challenge in several distinct ways. Even with new film funds developing and alternative avenues emerging for exhibition, oftentimes, there is severe political and social censorship with which filmmakers from the region have to contend. How successful the outcome of certain projects is up for debate, for quite a few pieces are unpolished, filled with the kind of “gaffes” of which most Western filmmakers (and audiences) are highly critical. We must also remember, however, that a lot of these important and timely stories never get the appropriate professional support to help enhance their "market-readiness." Nonetheless, it is important that these films get some play outside their own region at high-profile festivals, and in this case it was thanks to expansive programmers like Hussain Currimbhoy that they played at Sheffield.
The Middle East Focus strand at Doc/Fest 2010 showcased ten films from Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Iran and Tunisia. There were two feature-length films that were particularly striking, but for entirely different reasons. While Zeina Daccache’s 12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary is exceedingly well produced and executed, Mohammad Ali Atassi’s Waiting for Abu Zayd is not. In fact, at its conclusion, Atassi’s film devolves into a philosophical argument between the journalist and his subject, Atassi’s a frustrated off-camera voice expressing bewilderment to Zayd about the intellectual’s refusal to return to his native Egypt after 13 years of exile. It’s an unintentionally morbid conclusion to what amounts to the only extensive documentation of Zayd’s life.
The two films have some palpable reverberations with one another since both say a lot about the constant struggle with creating contemporary meaning out of ancient Qur’anic traditions of Islam, and the complex social morés (and severe social restrictions) of being a good and faithful Muslim today. In both cases, the films concentrate on these principles through interaction with state “criminals,” or exiles, in Zayd's case.
Fierce and fesity theatre director, Zeina Daccache, sets up Lebanon’s first prison-based drama project in Roumieh Prison, one of the most overcrowded penitentiaries. The facility, built for 1,500 inmates, holds almost 4,000. Over the course of a year and half, she molds a group of 45 actors plucked from the prison population and stages an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s teleplay from 1957, 12 Angry Men. The story takes place in the confines of a deliberation room with 12 jurors deciding the case of a boy who is being charged for murdering his father. There is one man who decides to buck the unanimous vote of “guilty” which leads to a passionate interplay between notions of innocence and guilt. As the prisoners themselves analyze all of the motivations of their individual characters, they start to work out deeply embedded personal, familial and social issues, all guided by Daccache in a magnificent performance of her own. She stubbornly stays with her charges through all of their injurious self-doubts, through intense resistance to commit to the rigors of rehearsal, and the intimidating exposure of performance. We learn immediately about the crimes these men committed, but the reasons why they find themselves behind bars (some for life) always surprise. Yes, some blame their upbringing, their parents, their surroundings, but most reveal that the foibles of their own personalities are the “culprits” that led them to lose their way, resulting in giving each of them much agency in their attempts at self-understanding.
The film documents Daccache’s work inside the prison, spending most of its time in the rehearsal / therapy process. Monologues and song and dance routines that detail the prisoners’ life experiences are created and added to the spine of Rose's original play. Seen by many influential people in Lebanese government, the play (and the film) helped put into action a law from 2000 that was never enforced, which offers reduced sentences for good behavior. Two months after the staging of the play in which the characters talk about the need for the law's actual implementation, Lebanon’s Justice Ministry began approving reduced sentences. Certainly, the existing structure of the original play, the play within the play, and the structure of Daccache’s CATHARSIS program (essentially therapy through enacting drama), has enhanced the dramaturgical work of this exhilarating documentary. But the heart of the matter resides in the ways in which the inmates interact with the camera lens, with superb shooting by Jocelyne Abi Gebrayel, and sensitive and graceful editing by Michele Tyan. It is a focused and satisfyingly contextualized effort.
Syrian journalist and human rights activist, Mohammed Ali Atassi, who followed his protagonist for six years, is not as narratively successful in his film portrait of Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd in Waiting for Abu Zayd. A brilliant and outspoken liberal theologian and intellectual, Zayd wrote several books challenging institutionalized interpretations of the Qur’an and Islam. Zayd was the victim of a ludicrous court battle that labeled him an apostate, resulting in his exile from his native Egypt. Atassi follows Zayd as he tours, lectures and comes face to face with a tightly controlled Middle Eastern press. One television station at which he is interviewed is owned by Saudi Arabians; any criticism of Wahhabism (the country’s dominant faith, and an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of Qur’an) is a serious breach, and Zayd is told this several times before he appears on air. But clearly at that point in his life, he was a man with nothing more to lose. In 1995, he had been banned from his native country, an enemy of the powers that control traditional Islamic practices and laws, and Egypt’s religious authorities forcibly divorced him from his beloved wife, Cairo University professor, Ibtihal Younes.
Subsequently, Zayd spent his time in exile writing books and raging eloquently in public debates, calling for a more humanist, modern approach to being a faithful Muslim. For the last several years of his life (he died in July of 2010, two months after the film was completed), he resided in Leyden in the Netherlands, where he continued to give conferences and public debates about his positions, which hardly appear to be so radical in any other place outside of the fundamentalist regime in which he resided.
The film is enhanced by fiery testimonials from Younes (pictured left with Zayd), and Zayd’s friend, Mohammad Hakem, a leftist political activist and student leader (who has also passed away since the film was made). But films about thinkers and intellectuals, particularly one as straightforward as this (and feature-length at that), pose enormous challenges to both the maker and the audience. In essence, it fails as a cohesive film, broken awkwardly into aspects of a TV journalism profile, personal diary, and poetic ode to an indomitable spirit. Atassi’s homage to Zayd captures the man’s humor and humanity but the forays into song, strange montage, and other filmic “effects” throughout the piece ultimately create distance from the subject, instead of providing valuable context. More importantly, a greater understanding and contextualization of Zayd’s surreal journey into exile is sacrificed.
Near the end of the film, knowing full well the propensity of the media (and, perhaps, Atassi) to lionize him in some grossly inaccurate way, Zayd states, “I need to be modest so that our leaders can learn modesty. The intellectual who claims ownership of the Truth is the other leg of the dictator. When an intellectual claims to own the Truth, he becomes the dictator’s servant.”
For more information on the Sheffield festival and market, and to keep up to date on deadlines for this year’s fest, which moves from autumn to summer (8 – 12 June 2011), visit the web site at http://sheffdocfest.com/.