Ideology and Aesthetics in Arabic Documentaries

in 10th Dubai International Film Festival

by Wassim Korbi

Talking about documentary film in the Arab world raises several fundamental problems, whether at the level of intellectual and aesthetic discourse or at the level of the presence of this creative genre in international festivals. Documentary film has been known as being bound to reality, a fact that makes the film images a mirror of society today and a drawing of a dialectical relationship between the technical, the aesthetic and the film implications. Our presence in the jury of the Dubai Film Festival was a chance to see the level of documentaries from various Arab countries in the world city of Dubai.

1-The ideological content in Arabic documentaries:

Arab cinema was rarely able to impose its presence in international festivals because, with the obstacles and productivity constraints on the one hand and the experimental tendency and the search for a maturation of art awareness on the other hand, the practice of the cinematic art has not yet reached the maturity stage. Contrary to Arab films some film festivals in the Arab world managed to reach the degree of universality at the organizational level and to be included within the first festivals in the world. Among these creative developments we can mention the Dubai Film Festival. In addition to the value of the guests and the added value of the films, most of which are shown for the first time internationally, dedicating a competition to the Arab documentary is a recognition of the value of this creative genre, which occupies an important position in cinema today.

In fact, the greatest thing is the diversity of Arab documentaries and the implications of cognitive, intellectual, and multiple aesthetics, the most notable in this programme being the tyranny of the ideological nature on the one hand and aesthetic innovation attempted on the other hand. Out of fear of the obstacles in creating images and fear of local control, in the past the documentary film in Arab cinema was just a set of folkloric pictures that did not deal with politics. Now, it has become a celebration of the Arab Spring. Moreover, most of the competition documentaries dealt with an ideology, and we can conclude that the most important topics were:

-Spring democratic revolution:

Some of the competition films focused on the period after Arab revolutions, in particular documentaries from countries that have experienced the revolution, such as the movie The Square (Al Midan) by the filmmaker Jehane Noujaim of Egypt, which focuses on the journey of the Egyptian revolution through the youth who documented the events by modern means to resist tyranny and oppression. It is a portrait of the struggle for freedom and democracy with the new conflicts between the civil society and Muslim Brotherhood community. On the other hand the Tunisian film War Reporter (Al hay Yrawah) focused on the Arab revolutions, starting from the Tunisian, Libyan Egyptian and Yemeni revolution up to the events in Syria.

The filmmaker focused on the journalist’s job and his coverage of the events during the revolutions. The movie successfully documented the danger faced by the journalist through the police repression and the rebel citizen reaction toward the journalist and the militia’s threats to the journalist who strives to transfer the news without knowing if he will return alive or dead. It highlighted the painful images of the death of the French photographer Lucas in Tunisia and the death of Nicolas and Remy in Syria. On the other hand, the film The Mulberry House (Bayt Attout) by the Yemeni Sarah Isaac highlighted the return of a girl to witness the revolution and the developments in Sanaa. The film depicts a state of anticipation, before the country gets rid of dictatorship.

-The Palestinian issue: 

The Palestinian issue took an important place in the subjects treated by the documentaries. The film My Love Awaits Me By The Sea (Habibi Byestnani and al bahr) talked about the land dream scattered here and there, and about hanging hopes. The film Searching For Saris (Albahth an Saris) was in its turn a trip to search for identity and a reminder of displacement tragedies.

-Lebanese Civil War: 

Another set of documentaries focused on the Lebanese civil war and the street chaos where sectarianism exists in a range of popular neighborhoods of Beirut. The movie Guardians Of Time Lost (Arak) reveals the complexities of social life in Lebanon and the political repercussions on social security, whereby Hay Al Laja becomes a to-go area for non-residents of the neighborhood. On the other hand the film Heritages (Mirath) by Philippe Aractingi touched on bilateral migration and back through the stabilization phase in France and the desire to live in Lebanon, exploring alienation and the search to recover a lost identity.

-Human rights issues:

Cinematic documentaries usually treat cinematically sensitive topics, as with the film crowned the FIPRESCI winner in the Dubai Festival, the film entitled Scheherazade’s Diary (Yawmiyat Chahrazed) by Zina Dakkash, a filmmaker specialized in drama therapy who has been able to penetrate with her unparalleled views difficult worlds. The women’s prison Baabda in Lebanon, is full of the tragic stories of prisoners who committed errors that lead them to the world of darkness. And they perform theater in an attempt to forget their concerns.

These topics touched on by all the Arab documentaries are a reflection of the reality of the moment; they are portraits that embody forms of intellectual conflict; they are the ideology  of the film creator  who is struggling with today’s ideology of Arab societies and repressive political ideology across a range of functional and aesthetic components. Perhaps the most important thing we can come away with from watching is the darkness of the Arab scene in today’s crises and ideological conflicts, whether in political, religious or social dimension. The ideology of the young filmmakers shows an ideology contrary to the ideology of a political official image of cultural resistance under Democratic detente after the outbreak of the revolution in the first spring countries: Tunisia.

2- The aesthetic significance in the documentary and the stakes of the new image: 

The Arab documentaries were saturated with historical events and political movement, daily scenes and identity fingerprints. Documentaries in the Arab world have only covered so far a small part of the important topics that abound in the Arab region. This is due to the initiation of new model of film production and the lack of awareness of the importance of documentary and a weakness of funds allocated to the image. The documentary is the tendency of ideological distinction which usually serves as the engine of reality, but the documentary film came mostly in celebrated blackness, gloom and sadness. This dominant ideology was expressed through multiple aesthetics where the Heritages film director tried a new cinematic style through the use of green background technology and a mixture of archived photos and family photos. He also incorporated images of the present figures inside the old archived photos to make that inspiration roam in the depths of the past. Time blends and the present meets the past to make the places one place. It also relied on the movement of the camera as an aesthetic film pictures loader like Birds Of September (Toyour Ayoul), a film where the camera is stable inside an ongoing vehicle which did not stop its movements from the beginning of the film to its end, which reflects the research. The camera moves around the city of Beirut to create a movement for the framework and a movement inside it. In another context of film, War Reporter adopted a mobile camera, the self-scene in the transfer of war images and the trial to transfer the reality with its accurate details. The camera trembles to transfer incomprehensible images and others similar to amateur pictures but that increases the luster of the revolution photo and revives a sense of realism. We can also mention the narrative that has been exploited as a front for the ideological struggle and to try to achieve a kind of creative realism. Some movies adopted creative writing, and others tried to innovate by placing the imagination and realism side by side; integrating dream with truth and overlapping documentary and fiction as in Bloody Beans (Loubia Hamra), the Algerian film.

But in the movie Scheherazade’s Diary, the director has chosen silence to transfer the images of suffering inside the prison, and through this silent image we listened to the noise of silence. The silence in the documentary is the calm rhythm, the expressive music and the discontinued words, with the camera left to lead us into the depths of pain. With these different styles and formats of documentary, what we could notice in Arab documentaries as a whole in this edition of the Dubai International Film Festival is that they have moved away from the folkloric character and reproduction of the above, and come mostly charged with barbed issues and renewed attempts at the level of film production. The adopted aesthetics are related to the new ideology, the fact that enables us today to talk about a different picture and about Arab cinema taking a new concept that gives to the documentary the ideological function a maturation of the artistic consciousness and the exposure of the blackout taken in several countries that suppress freedom of creativity.

Edited by Lesley Chow