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The new patrons
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 07 - 2001

How to rejuvenate an ailing industry? Hani Mustafa, jury member of the first Desert Rain Independent Film and Video Festival, examines a possible answer
In this age of global capitalism documentaries and short features, including the graduation projects of cinema students throughout the Arab world, are in dire need of patronage from outside the official sphere. Lying beyond the commercial realm, such work is different and more interesting than the bulk of mainstream cinema. Yet it remains marginal to the agendas of both private- sector and government-supported institutions.
Newly established Arab satellite networks, by contrast, have a vested interest in documentaries and short features, both because they provide satellite channels with much needed material to broadcast and because they offer a much broader range of content, being too experimental for the private sector and too bold for national television, a "ratings" advantage on which the satellite channels in question are eager to capitalise. The process is mutually beneficial at both the material and the moral level, providing struggling filmmakers with opportunities for exposure and profit while casting satellite networks in the role of cinematic trailblazers.
This marriage of the lucrative and the sublime has produced a new kind of small-scale film festival, supported by satellite networks and focusing exclusively on documentaries and short features. Such, for example, were the first two rounds of the Arab Screen Festival, in London and Dawha, respectively, supported by the satellite channel Al-Jazira.
The four-day Desert Rain Independent Film and Video Festival, which ended last week, is the latest example. Supported by the Arab Radio and Television network (ART), it was held in Avezzano, Italy, where ART's European broadcast centre is located. The idea, the director of the festival Mustafa Tell explained, first came to him after seeing a number of outstanding short films from the Arab world screened separately during a stay in the US. He wondered how a greater number of such films might be screened at the same time. "The idea met with some success when I worked for ART here, but there were problems." When one of the festival's sponsors backed out at the last minute both the programme of screenings and the number of public figures invited to the festival were significantly reduced. Notwithstanding performances by the Jordanian band Rum and the Iraqi qanun-player Furat Qadduori, this was reflected in the absence of the majority of Arab film critics and the lack of seminars and public debates. And yet the Desert Rain Festival kept Avezzano buzzing for nearly a week.
Forty-five films competed for the documentary award, the short feature award and the student's film award. Outside the competition, two long features and one documentary were screened: respectively, Faisal Al-Zuabi's Dik Al-Ahlam (The Rooster of Dreams), Wael Istanbuli's Ifrag (Release) and Ahmed Rashwan's Guwwal-Bashar (Inside the People).
The programme was arranged into categories based not on genre but on geographical origin: Films About Palestine, Arab Films from Asia, Arab Films from Africa and Mahjar Films. Each of these categories occupied one day of festival screenings, which made for rewardingly thematic viewing. That there should be an additional award for each was somewhat more problematic. Placing documentaries in competition with features and graduation projects is like comparing apples and oranges. But with only two countries representing Asia and Africa, and no more than four contributions from the Mahjar, the scope of the screenings was so restricted the winners could be identified from the start with relative ease.
Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Abu Zeid's Al- Hawi (The Street Entertainer), winner of the best documentary award, penetrated the life of fire-eaters and other street performers to be found performing at saint's anniversaries around the country, tracing their various, fascinating personal histories -- some, notably, are reformed thieves -- and positing a relation between such practices and Sufi self-flagellation. Tunisian filmmaker Molka Mahdaoui's Khemissa, which won the best short feature award, on the other hand, is a poignant story of redemption marred only by a naively lyrical ending that made the point of the story a little too obvious for comfort: a rich, suicidal woman rethinks her entire life when she encounters an old Bedouin woman begging for bread. And Lebanese filmmaker Maha Haddad's Turieb (the title consists of the letters of the word "Beirut" in reverse order), the best student's film, is an innovative account of the frustrations of a present- day 24-year-old Lebanese woman: social concerns like unemployment are juxtaposed with nudity and a number of bold visual statements about the filmmaker's generation of women.
The Palestine, Asia, Africa and Mahjar awards went, respectively, to: Najwa Najjar's Jawharat Al-Silwan (Quintessence of Oblivion), a documentary about the lives of the audience of Cinema El-Hamra, Jerusalem, prior to 1967 which strays away from its theme and into the Arab- Israeli conflict; Elias Shaheen's The Man Who Walks On The Other Side Of The Sidewalk, an astonishing documentary on the veteran Lebanese filmmaker George Nassar, whose present-day life was filmed surreptitiously, since he refused to take part in the film; Egyptian filmmaker , a conventional record of the life of a fishing village in the Delta; and Hisham Al-Zouki's Al-Bab (The Door), a complex metaphor for homecoming in which an Arab man carries a door through the streets of a European city, reaching a shore where he places it on the sand and walks through it -- only then does the camera span far enough for the viewer to realise that, thus placed, the door combines with two windows to insinuate a house in which the man might live.
Tunisian filmmaker Boubakr Kamon's Al- Shasha (The Screen), which won the special jury prize, employed computer-generated graphics to create almost abstract forms reflecting on viewer- media relations. And Jordanian filmmaker Iyad Al-Dawoud's Al-Awda (The Return), which the audience voted best film, documents the life of Palestinians in refugee camps throughout the Arab world.
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