x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Focusing on documentaries

Film The fledgling film festival Documentary Voices: Pulling Focus is a learning experience for its creators.

Women Police Station prompted a lively debate at the first documentary film festival in the UAE.
Women Police Station prompted a lively debate at the first documentary film festival in the UAE.

On the morning of July 5, a dozen or so men and women gather outside the auditorium in Block One of Dubai's Knowledge Village. They are multinational and casually dressed; nothing about their appearance reveals their purpose. A casual passer-by (there are none) would assume they are residents of Dubai attending one of those events - etiquette classes, leadership seminars, motivational workshops, language lessons or university classes - that bring people to Knowledge Village.

But they aren't residents of Dubai: they have just flown in from Kuwait, Iran, Lebanon, Amsterdam and the United States. Most are filmmakers; a few are producers, distributors and festival curators. They have all been invited to attend the UAE's first ever documentary film festival (as the signs in the lobby dub it), and none has a clear notion of what that might entail. Documentary Voices: Pulling ­Focus is the brainchild of two women: Mashid Zamani, an accomplished film critic and CEO of the Sharjah-based event production company Caspian Events, and Anisa Mehdi, a veteran American journalist and documentary filmmaker who often works in the Middle East. Last year, Mehdi presented Inside Mecca, a National Geographic documentary she made about the haj, at the ­Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Center (DCAA), then managed by Zamani, who had not yet founded Caspian. After the screening, ­Zamani proposed that Mehdi partner with her to launch a documentary program in Dubai.

Mehdi agreed. "The first thing we had to do was get some seed money," she explains, stepping outside for some relief from Block One's unceasingly chilling air-conditioning. "So we got it, from an anonymous source." After raising more money through donations and winning the blessing of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, Mehdi and Zamani started looking for films. They did not put out a public call for entries. "Mashid knows a lot of filmmakers, I know a lot of filmmakers," says Mehdi. "So we worked on word of mouth. We might do a public call later down the road, when the programme develops. But we want to emphasise that this is not a competition. We're not giving 'best of's' or anything like that. It's really a symposium, not a festival."

Indeed, the atmosphere is decidedly not that of a film festival. Each day around 11am, the invited guests are shuttled to Block One from the Millennium Grand Hotel down the road. For the next 12 hours, they sit through screenings and discussions of each others' films. They break briefly for meals provided by sponsors - coffee and sandwiches from Costa, kebabs from Al Sondos - then return to the auditorium. Occasionally, the screening schedule is interrupted by a panel discussion on, for example, "Documentaries and Diplomacy" or "The Marketplace for Nonfiction". Around 11pm, they go back to the hotel and fall asleep. Cannes it ain't.

The event was open to the public, but it was not well advertised, and the few people who show up are frustrated by the lack of a reliable schedule. A schedule was printed on the website, but it is almost entirely inaccurate. As Mehdi puts it to me on the afternoon of the opening day, "There is no schedule anymore." With the exception of the opening night's festivities, no screening is attended by more than 20 members of the public.

"I think maybe I saw three or four other people in the audience, during my film," says Hady Zaccak, the slim, smile-prone Lebanese director of Refugees for Life, an examination of the lives of Palestinians living in refugee neighbourhoods and communities in South Lebanon and Germany. "And filmmakers seeing each others' films is OK, it's good. But you make films to see the impact on an audience. We're missing this."

His good friend Philip Bajjaly, a fellow Lebanese director whose film Immortal Memory looks at the 2006 military conflict in Lebanon through the eyes of two survivors, agrees. "It's not a festival. It's a gathering. It's a get-together. It's an initiative. And its heart is in the right place. But I really miss the public here. I miss them a lot." This does not worry Mehdi. "We're focusing on the filmmakers, not the audience. We welcome the audience. Next time around we might be talking about the audience. Plus there was an audience on opening night, which went smooth as silk."

Indeed, the opening night festivities are the closest thing to a conventional festival-type happening all weekend. There is a little reception with hors d'oeuvres; Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the chairman of the DCAA, is in attendance; City 7 cameramen are filming. The ceremony begins with the first ever screening of scenes from Dubai: A Pearl in the Gulf, by Kamran Shirdel, recognised by many as the father of the contemporary school of Iranian documentary filmmaking. In the early 1970s, after having all of his documentaries about Iran's social problems confiscated and banned, Shirdel travelled around the Gulf making documentaries about the new states emerging there. In the just-formed Emirates, he befriended Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and the film features footage of the young sheikh piloting a helicopter over the desert.

"No one ever asked me for the film," Shirdel tells me, shaking his head in wonder. "I went back to Iran, I finished the film, I edited the film. I sent two copies on 35 millimetre to Sheikh Rashid. They put on a fiesta, I think, with something like 600 people, and watched the film. I gave a copy to the Ministry of Culture and Art, and I put my copy away and moved on to other things." After a visit to Abu Dhabi to see family members two years ago, Shirdel went looking for the film, and found that his copy was still in relatively good shape. With the help of friends, he cleaned it and subtitled it. When Zamani and Mehdi contacted him, he had the perfect film ready for them.

Questions of audience and purpose permeate the rest of the festival. After Women Police Station, a 23-minute look at Iran's first ever female police unit, a civil but heated dispute broke out over whether the film constituted a work of propaganda. The 27-year-old director, Azar Mehrabi, insisted that she had done the best she could given the tight restrictions on Iranian filmmakers. Maghsoudlou and others (mainly Iranians and the three Arabs present) attacked the movie as lacking a critical point of view or cinematic purpose. Similar criticisms were levelled against Bam 6.6, a film about the 2003 earthquake in the Iranian village of Bam by Jahangir Golestan-Parast, an Iranian (and first-time filmmaker) living in America, who spends a great deal of time dwelling on the natural hospitality and kindness of Iranians. Both Golestan-Parast and Mehrabi had vocal defenders.

"What you just saw," Bajjaly explains to me after the Bam 6.6 back-and-forth, "is a great example of missing identity here. Over there is Hady, who studies filmmaking, teaches filmmaking, is a relatively high-calibre guy. His mission is to go up there and defend the core ­essence of a cinematic festival. And this was a wonderful little work, I'm happy for the director that he did it. But if you're going to get Hady to talk about cinema, about style, about language - that's something else. And that's the problem here: what are we talking about?"

On the morning of the last day, everyone met with Mehdi to review their suggestions for possible future iterations of Pulling Voices. ­Zaccak and Bajjaly tell me they asked for more Arab filmmakers (there were only three). Almost everyone told me they asked for an audience, a firmer schedule and some time to see Dubai, instead of just glimpsing its skyline out of windows and on the five-minute drive back to the hotel. Everyone I asked said that, criticism aside, they would come again if invited. Everyone agreed that they had made valuable connections (Bajjaly had his film admitted to the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, whose founder Ally Derks attended all but the last day of Pulling Voices; ­Virginia Davis, an American, had her film Front-runner picked up by an Afghan TV station).

That night I run into Mehdi. "This time out of the gate we did pretty well," she said. "We're learning from what maybe didn't go the way we wanted it to. Lots of logistical things. And maybe we'll be a bit more discerning in the films we show next time. It's going to be a growth experience for me. An old producer friend of mine once said: 'If your job doesn't frighten you, it's time to move along.' Well, I've been frightened, and I'm tired and that's exciting."