We talk to some of the filmmakers behind the regional documentaries screening at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.
Real-life Arab reels at this year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival 2012
"There's an urban legend that Arabs can't make documentaries," says Teresa Cavina, Abu Dhabi Film Festival's programming director. "But this year the Arab selection is stronger than the international one."
Cavina's claim is justified, and this year's excellent crop of regional documentaries from both established filmmakers and emerging talent highlights the growing appreciation for the format from across the region.
At the last film festival, the Syrian director Hala Alabdalla spoke about the effect of the Arab Spring on filmmaking, claiming that the revolution would have a dramatic effect in unleashing creativity. This year, she underlines that foresight with her own documentary As if We Were Catching a Cobra. What started as a look at caricatures and newspaper cartoons in Egypt and Syria was shaken by the uprisings, transforming into a passionate study into Arab artists fighting for freedom.
In Cursed Be the Phosphate, the Tunisian director Sam Tlili looks at one of the original seeds of revolution from which the Arab Spring was born. Turning the clock back three years before the toppling of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, he investigates an uprising in the phosphate-rich region of Gafsa in January 2008, which was swiftly and brutally suppressed by the Tunisian government at the time.
Perhaps one of the most touching documentaries on offer is A World Not Ours by Mahdi Fleifel, a Palestinian from the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon who was able to leave with his family as a child, first to Dubai and then to Europe.
Originally planned as a Spike Lee-style narrative feature set during the World Cup and the subsequent madness that takes over the camp, Fleifel found that the footage he had gathered as research during his subsequent returns to visit friends and relatives were enough for this fascinating documentary. "It hit me that I had enough material to make a much more authentic, genuine film about Ain el-Hilweh than if I was to go back as a fiction director."
A World Not Ours shows the camp through the eyes of different generations of those still living there, from Fleifel's loveable granddad permanently at war with the children playing football in the alley to his friend Abu Eyad, an intelligent, well-spoken and charismatic man slowly being "suffocated" by his refugee status and inability to escape.
While it's deeply tragic in parts, with Fleifel's subjects helping capture the often hopeless feeling of life in an increasingly confined and stifling space, it has plenty of room for comedy, through the director's commentary and his father's footage from the 1980s.
"I actually wrote it a bit like an episode of The Wonder Years," Fleifel admits.
From Egypt come two documentaries, but - interestingly enough - neither use last year's revolution as a subject base like so many over the past 18 months.
In Mohammed Saved From the Waters, Safaa Fathy, inspired by her brother's death from polluted water from the Nile, tackles the issue of poverty and public health across the country, exploring tradition, religion and family.
In Search of Oil and Sand from Wael Omar and Philippe Dib is perhaps the most curious addition to the documentary selection, unravelling the contents of a series of film reels uncovered by a distant relative of Egypt's late King Farouk.
As the film explains, in 1952, King Farouk's brother, cousin and several other members of the royal family shot a rather extravagant feature film in the Egyptian desert about a coup, just weeks before a real-life one would sweep them from power.
"When we got the reels out and began to look through them, we realised that we had uncovered gold," says Omar, who admits that the film was actually being developed when the revolution hit. "We were about to start shooting when the uprising began, and immediately felt that it was something we should include because history had come full circle, yet also felt like the points of departure in the film about the old aristocracy would be eclipsed by the magnitude of what was happening in Tahrir. So there was a very deliberate attempt to steer away from tackling any of that."
In Real-life Arab Reels, October 10, (A&L page 10) we wrote that one of the directors of In Search of Oil and Sand was Wael Abbas. It was actually Wael Omar.