Reflecting on Arab documentary

DOHA: “There are so many ways to see and discuss and celebrate documentary film,” Orwa Nyrabia observed, “well beyond festival premieres and competitions.”

Nyrabia has had some experience celebrating cinema. In the early 2000s, he and his partner, filmmaker Diana El Jeiroudi, launched Syria’s first independent film production company. In 2008, Nyrabia and Jeiroudi co-founded DOX BOX, Damascus’ independent documentary film festival.

Nyrabia relocated to Egypt in 2012, then to Germany in 2013. He continued to work on international co-productions, including award-winning titles like Talal Derki’s “Return to Homs,” 2013, and “Silvered Water,” 2014, by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan. More recently, he’s been appointed the artistic director of Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival, IDFA. One of cinema’s most influential documentary film platforms, IDFA stages a prominent documentary competition, year-round exhibitions and, through its Bertha Fund, finances documentaries from the “global south” and parts of Eastern Europe.

It was as producer and festival representative that Nyrabia was in Doha recently to participate in Qumra, the Doha Film Institute’s yearly film incubation platform for freshman and sophomore filmmakers.

After a marathon session of meetings, he sat down with The Daily Star to muse briefly upon Qumra, IDFA and the changing face of Arab documentary practice.

“I enjoy discussing projects with filmmakers,” he said. “For me the core of the documentary film [discussion] is examining the creative process. Qumra’s documentary film selection ... included quite a few promising projects. That’s a compliment to DFI’s grants department and the way they’re selecting projects, and a testament to the overall quality of Qumra. It’s also connected to the development of the documentary form globally.”

Like other exhibitors participating in Qumra, Nyrabia was on the lookout for titles for IDFA’s competition and noncompetitive programming, though he sees his role in less utilitarian terms. “It’s also about seeing what’s up,” he said, “about being part of this wave of documentary filmmakers trying to take this form to the next level.”

Nyrabia and his collaborators have long been advocates for the “next level” of documentary film practice - easing the form away from the journalistic premises of some of its early practitioners and closer to cinema. “In principle [the next level of documentary] is to abolish the old notions of what documentary film is,” he said.

Those notions are “geared to ‘subject’ and ‘information’ and ‘analysis,’ rather than documentary being a cinematic experience.

“The Arab Spring certainly contributed to this international wave with a large output of new films that were made with a lot of emotion and commitment by their makers.

“They presented a different paradigm, where filmmaking is a tool of survival in the creative sense of the term and not just a profession. That, I think, this is missing in cinema in general, including in fiction films. ... The more prominent documentary becomes in cinema, the more we’ll also see fiction filmmakers challenged by the level of authenticity that they’re now expected to meet.

“This may not apply to the blockbusters, but Hollywood blockbusters are maybe a different industry. They don’t play in the same pitch.”

Within the global shift in documentary film, Nyrabia sees Arab directors facing a unique range of opportunities and challenges - though the story’s not a black-and-white one.

“First there are the opportunities - the lack of local or regional funding. There are only a few organizations supporting Arab world documentary film - DFI, AFAC [the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture] and DOX BOX in Berlin. This means less money than necessary but great creative freedom. That lack of funding is not just a curse. It’s also a blessing.

“The curse is our always having to negotiate with a different gaze, sometimes forcing us to comprise more than we’d like. The blessing in it is that we’re free from market preconceptions and fears of not making big box office returns.”

In this paradox of scant funding, Nyrabia sees a sort of safe zone for freedom of artistic expression.

“Of course there are the other problems that we’ve always lived with, like censorship. We also see growing self-censorship. We saw an Arab Spring that supported and encouraged dissidence in filmmaking. Then we saw the retreat after that. We see no one in Egypt now making films that show dissidence. We see the Gulf region is still not making documentary films.”

The manifold complexities entailed in looking into the mirror, he observed, aren’t simply a matter of politics.

“Still,” Nyrabia smiled, “Arab film and Arab world documentary in particular, has been prominent in every international platform, in every international festival, for the past seven or eight years now. This is an unprecedented change.”

For more on Qumra, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 25, 2019, on page 12.




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