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Operation Filmmaking

It feels like I’ve won the lottery. A documentary I made about Peruvian farmers standing up to US and British-owned mining companies has been selected for the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Doha, Qatar. Suddenly I find myself far from my Andean mountain home, in the exotic desert lands of the Persian Gulf.

To my surprise, however, this desert is air-conditioned.

The city is a mass of gleaming new skyscrapers, shopping malls and parking lots full of luxury vehicles. The Doha skyline provides a curious study of modern urban architecture gone wild. No spending limit is not always a good thing: my favourite example is a tall, phallic silver tower that looks like it’s covered in smooth chain link, with a needle-antennae sticking up in the air. There’s also an almost-finished replica of the Twin Towers. Each building competes for attention – unique in its own bejeweled way.

In my jet-lagged haze, after 30 hours of travel, I feel as though I’ve passed through a time warp and landed in some futuristic Middle East. Where are the chaotic, narrow, winding markets, the beat-up second hand cars, the camels and Bedouin shepherds? Even the city’s traditional market has been torn down and rebuilt in a Disneyesque version of ‘local culture’: no dirt, no nasty smells and definitely no pick-pockets.

Doha skyline.

Obviously, I’ve not done my pre-Qatar research. The country, as I find out, has one of the world’s highest GDP – thanks to thriving oil and natural gas industries and a clever government. Qatar has money, class and sophistication and they want the world to know it: the country has just won a bid for the 2022 World Cup. Several new museums and art galleries show off a blend of ancient and modern Islamic art.

While I’m in town there’s even a special exhibit of the Dutch Golden Masters from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Qataris looking for a slice of American pie can attend the WWE ‘Wrestlemania Revenge Tour’, with grunting, steroid-happy men pretending to fight in the Big Ring.

A Palestine peace activist I met in Europe warned me that Doha is not very ‘representative’ of the Middle East: ‘It’s like they opened a box and out popped the city – poof – with everything perfect,’ he said. He found the city’s orderliness and expensive modernity disconcerting. ‘Too clean,’ he said.

‘Sterilized’ is more the word that pops to my mind.

But underneath the pricey architecture and obsession with sporting events lies a government prepared to invest a sizeable chunk of its revenues in education and culture. With a high national income, progressive reforms and relative freedom for an Islamic country, Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani is one of those rare species in our modern world: a monarch that the people actually like.

Or rather, his own subjects love him.

The Emir also funds perhaps the greatest challenge to mainstream American and British media dominance: Al Jazeera, provoking the ire of many Arab governments, as well as the former Bush administration.

Al Jazeera. Photo by Joi Ito under a CC licence.

Every festival has its own style or niche market – some aim to connect with local audiences, or specialty crowds, like activist groups or pop culture fans. Others are directed more at the film or television industry. But the Al Jazeera Film Festival has its own unique vibe: it seems to be about bringing documentary film-makers from around the world together to share our craft.

The screenings are open to the public, but few locals attend the dizzying array of over 200 films shown throughout the city. Most of the audience is made up of the 300+ festival guests: producers, filmmakers, festival organizers and non-mainstream television broadcasters, all dedicated to the increasingly popular genre of social justice films.

The festival centre is the famous Sheraton Doha, where guests are lodged in a faux pyramid with Arabian nights-style kitsch. A short jog away (yet without leaving the massive hotel), a large dining hall serves up a tasty Middle Eastern buffet. The central area houses booths with an eclectic blend of alternative media, from an Iranian animation collective to Cuba’s national television station and the UK’s Guardian films and books.

There are also women selling Qatari perfumes, sweets and clothing, a travel agent offering trips to the desert and, in the middle of the throng, a local radio station which conducts live interviews.

There’s not a lot of emphasis on theater standards: most of the films are shown in cavernous hotel conference rooms or the local outdoor market, with poor sound and young children and dogs wandering in front of the screen. But as filmmakers, we’re used to looking beyond the technical glitches – what’s important here are the issues, or, as the festival’s motto states: Dialogue.

There are great award-winning films, like British film maker Kim Longinotto’s Pink Saris about Sampat Pal Devi, a charismatic Indian woman who leads the ‘Pink Gang’ to combat violence against women. Or Tears of Gaza by Norwegian director Vibeke Løkkeberg, with horrific footage of the 2008-2009 Israel’s bombings of Gaza, shot by Palestinians.

But for me, the most exciting aspect of the festival is the chance to meet new and upcoming filmmakers from the Middle East.

Festival crowd.

Mohammadreza Farzad, a 30-something Iranian filmmaker, tells me that in Iran film-makers have to be subtle to get past official censorship. A good example of this tactic is Mobile in Tehran, a poignant, humorous and bittersweet short about the loneliness pervading modern Iranian society by the young director Loqman Khaledi.

In an attempt to escape their isolation, the film’s protagonists turn to cellphones – often with dangerous or fatal results, such as the car crash victim who writhed in pain while onlookers snapped photos on their Blackberries and iPhones rather than coming to his assistance. Or the woman who thought she was sending her husband a loving message, but hit the wrong button and sent it to her best friend – resulting in a bitter divorce.

There is also the failed young actor who has earned underground fame by producing short video clips for cellphones. For him, mobile phones are a way to bypass official channels and reach the public directly. He relishes the clandestine nature of his communication. Although Mobile in Tehran falls short of portraying the use of social media in political protest, it explores the power of new technology, both good and bad.

(For a no-holds look at the social media revolution in Iran, check out the film Green Wave by Iranian-German director Ali Samadi Ahadi. This innovative movie uses animation, blogs and cellphone photos and videos to highlight pro-democracy protests in Iran after the hotly contested 2009 elections.)

My friend Mohammadreza Farzad has pushed his own definition of ‘Iranian subtlety’ to extremes with his profound and lyrical film Into Thin Air. Deeply personal, the film is Farzad’s search to fill in the gaps of the Black Friday Massacre during Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

The director was less than a month old when government forces loyal to Iran’s Shah fired on Islamic protesters in Tehran’s central Jaleh Square, on 8 September 1978. The exact number of dead and missing has never been determined, and just a few seconds of footage from the massacre has been made public.

Farzad analyzes the massacre clip in painstaking detail. It is less than a minute long, shot by an anonymous, amateur camera operator. The director rewinds, fast-forwards, watches in slow-motion, trying to pick out faces in the crowd. Farzad’s narration, poetic yet breath-takingly simple, reminds me of one of his own idols, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.

The government-approved footage doesn’t allow us to get close to the protesters or events. Farzad is unable to find the faces he craves in the short clip – the identities and voices of the revolution – so he fills them in himself with archive photos, footage previously unseen, testimony from one of the victim’s fathers and a visit to the local cemetery. The film is a courageous, beautiful quest for truth and memory in a nation in which history has been repressed.

On closing night, Farzad and other filmmakers and I take photos of each other against a giant poster of an Egyptian protester during the country’s recent revolution.

Events in Egypt are a rallying point for filmmakers at the festival – proof that film, video and social media can make a difference. I meet Mona Iraqi, a filmmaker and producer from Egypt who is scoping the Al Jazeera festival for new films to screen back home.

Mona is frighteningly tall with big gorgeous eyes and expressive features. She asks me if I’m a filmmaker. Before I can finish my ‘yesss’ she cuts in: ‘I must have a copy of your film. Give it to me.’ She is clearly a woman to be reckoned with. I dare not say ‘no’ and hand her a DVD.

Mona spent 18 days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January this year, filming protests that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. When I ask her if she was afraid, she shakes her head in a defiant ‘No’. ‘We knew we could die,’ she says. ‘We were prepared. Everyone in that square was ready to die. It was worth it.’

A Palestinian filmmaker adds that when ‘Egypt stands united, the Arab world stands strong’, quoting a popular refrain from the revolution’s youth movement.

The filmmaker is Ahmed Adnan Al Ramahi, a self-professed ‘trouble-maker’, based in Jordan. Ahmed makes independent films commissioned by Al Jazeera, and he was invited to the festival to pitch new projects with the channel’s producers.

Ahmed is upbeat when I greet him on the last day of the festival. Al Jazeera has just commissioned several new programmes from him, including a film about Jordan’s cultural revolution, where youth are using social media to press for change.

‘We’re fighting for things that you consider basic in your part of the world,’ Ahmed said. ‘Like the right to elect our government.’

In his day job, Ahmed conducts video and media training with Palestinian refuges in Jordan. Participants are given cameras and encouraged to document their own lives and make films and videos. His project is similar to the ‘Media that Matters’ film training I’m carrying out with Peruvian farming communities and activists with a small Peruvian non-profit. Some of the most graphic footage in my film The Devil Operation was shot by activists from our workshops.

Ahmed and I come from such different upbringings and circumstances, and yet I’m struck by the parallels in our lives: we’re both filmmakers and activists; teachers and students of the protagonists we portray. And we both try to expose the abuses occurring in our adopted countries.

Both of us struggle with low budgets, faulty technology and home-run production facilities, relying on support from family and friends. And we laugh at our quirky habits: Ahmed’s chain-smoking editor, who won’t let him touch the computer; my ‘Frankintosh’ editing suite, built from piecemeal parts by Peruvian hackers and coaxed to (sometimes) function like a Mac.

There are so many amazing filmmakers here like Ahmed, Mona, Farzad and Loqman, it’s impossible to profile them all.

Radio interviews.

As the final evening wraps up, I realize that this festival has been more like a group psychotherapy session for human rights filmmakers. Living in the isolated mountains of Peru, bombarded by images from CNN and the national right-wing media, it’s easy to forget that there are hundreds of people around the world struggling to tell the other side of the story.

During these four intense days we’ve shared our hardships and our triumphs. The methods we use to overcome censorship and repression, the inspiring stories we cover, which keep us going during the difficult moments, our plans and dreams for future projects. And, perhaps the most frustrating – yet necessary – side of independent filmmaking: how to find the money to make the next film.

As a Lebanese film maker said over beers around the Sheraton pool, (and I paraphrase), ‘The most amazing thing about the festival was meeting all you people… It’s strange to bring a group of filmmakers together without having egos get in the way.’

So for those of you who despair in the face of Fox News, the rise of reality television and ‘factual entertainment’ replacing documentary: rest assured. There are hundreds of documentary filmmakers and social media activists around the world dedicated to giving voice to the voiceless. We’re using the internet, blogs, cell phones, handy cams and other new technologies to get the word out.

And although you probably won’t find us on the BBC or PBS, we’re always close by: holding grassroots screenings with activists, churches, mosques, union halls and temples; posting our films online and joining forces with former ‘Axis of Evil’ broadcasters like Al Jazeera, TeleSur (a Venezuelan-based cable station in Latin America) and alternative US satellite providers like Free Speech TV.

Watch this space for Part Two, about Al Jazeera’s challenge to mainstream TV.

Photos by author unless otherwise indicated.

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