The Dubai International Film Festival is a very important forum for Arab cinema. It is a chance to look at the Arab world through the lens of a documentary camera: an extremely provocative, curious and worthwhile adventure.
This year the festival presented 15 documentaries from 11 countries (Lebanon, Qatar, Algeria, UAE, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia), which competed for the prize of the Arabian Stallion (Muhr Arab). The documentary section opened a wide window onto the traditions, inherited culture, contemporary events, and future issues of the Arab world.
It is not surprising that, two and a half years after the Arab Spring, many documentaries from the region are already analyzing the revolutionary wave, seeking generalizations and conclusions about political events. At the same time, however, these films put a strong focus on individual experience and reflections. Authors of undeniably good works such as the Egyptian film Waves (Moug), Sara Ishaq’s The Mulberry House (Bayt al toot) and the Tunisian film War Reporter (Il hay yrawah) look with a new perspective at past events, in search of answers about the nature of these events and their possible consequences.
There is no doubt that Egyptian director Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (Al maidan) achieves the most successful, thorough, comprehensive and compelling analysis. This experienced director unfolds the film through an extensive surveillance of Tahrir Square, but the film is also a study of the six main characters who highlight events from their own perspectives. People such as the successful actor Khallid Abdalla and Magdy Ashur – an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood – introduce themselves via clever reasoning and candid confessions, with exceptional analytical power and emotional energy. For viewers who are not so familiar with the hidden mechanisms of political manipulation, many events become convincingly clear: the three stages of revolution, the role of the army, the part of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the situation of former leader Mohammed Morsi.
The film vividly emphasizes the roles of young revolutionaries who are armed with nothing but cameras, social media, Youtube videos, and a resolute determination to liberate their nation. The Square was first released in an unfinished cut at Sundance in January 2013, where it won the Audience Award for Worldwide Cinema Documentary. For the final version at Dubai, a further ten minutes (shot literally at the last minute) were added, and the film decisively won the Muhr Arab for Best Documentary. A truly and profoundly analytical film, The Square is not one-dimensional; instead it skilfully interweaves diverse paths of life and personal ideas, zeal and fatigue, faith and disappointment. And this nuanced content is likely to remain some of the most compelling filmmaking of the Egyptian revolution, not fading into the background of hundreds of hours of television coverage.
Taking on a different theme, but also painfully relevant, is the Lebanese film Scheherazade’s Diary (Yawmiyat Scheherazade) by Zeina Daccache. Daccache is known as an actress, but she has also worked as a director of drama therapy theatre. Her new film was shot for over ten months in the Lebanese women’s prison Baabda. This gripping and tragicomic documentary features female inmates who challenge patriarchal societies. Through their theater initiative, titled Scheherazade in Baabda, these “murderers of husbands, adulterers and drug felons” reveal their stories. There are tales of domestic violence, traumatic childhood, failed marriages, forlorn romances, and the deprivation of motherhood. The women in Baabda Prison share their personal stories, and in doing so, hold up a mirror to contemporary Lebanese society.
Four years ago, Daccache won the FIPRESCI Prize and the Muhr Arab for Documentary for her film 12 Angry Lebanese (2009), which presented male inmates at the Roumieh Prison. In the meantime, the Taviani brothers made their remarkable film Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire). This “theater in a documentary” model is not new. But when a film like this is made professionally, with bright passion, credible emotions and bare sincerity, it always works. Dacchache confirms this fact and it was only natural that she receive the FIPRESCI Prize plus a Special Mention by the official jury at Dubai.
The range of documentaries about the Arab world should definitely not be limited to two titles. Yet these two films were discoveries in terms of their reliable narration and their investigation of the capabilities of original documentary filmmaking. And therefore they are my favorites among the documentary selection of this year’s festival.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2013