First-time documentary festival organizers Diana El Jeiroudi and Orwa Nyrabia want to show Syrian audiences the many faces of creative documentary – both Western and Arabic. Lights and Shadows (1994) was the opening film of dox box, the first independent and international doc film festival held in February in Damascus, Syria. The film, by Syrian filmmakers Omar Amiralay, Mohamed Malas and Ossama Mohammad, portrays Syrian film pioneer Nazih Shahbandar, who, in the 1930s and ’40s, invented his own film equipment, including a machine for optic sound that used razor blades. Shahbandar made the first Syrian sound film, Light and Darkness (1948), and was invited to work in Beirut and Cairo. He decided to return to Damascus to establish a Syrian film industry. In the mid ’70s, he helped Malas and Amiralay, who had founded the Damascus Cinema Club, with the projection of films – via a mirror in a garden.
By then, the fate of the Palestinians was a source for many films that successfully toured the Arab world. But in the 1980s, the Syrian regime tightened its grip on its people, including film audiences. Syrians began to stay home, and while the country once had many first-run cinemas, there are now only a handful that function. Numerous Syrian films are banned and cannot be screened in the country. Amiralay, who has become the most important Syrian documentary filmmaker, decided to continue his career in France. In 2005, he co-founded the Arab Institute of Film in Jordan to help develop filmmaking in the Arab world.
Today, Arab documentaries are sometimes available to Western audiences at festivals, but Western docs and even Arab ones are not always readily available to Arab audiences, and certainly not in Syria.
Dox box is a courageous initiative that wants to help change this by showing the Syrian public, including young aspiring documentary filmmakers, a variety of creative documentaries. The festival presented Western and Arab creative docs, of which a number certainly deserve that latter label. Films such as Full Bloom (Jordan, 2007) by Sandra Madi and Bird of Stone (Jordan/Syria, 2007) by Hazem Hamwi both center on personal decisions of the subjects. The filmmakers mix cleanly framed interview shots with seemingly undisturbed observations at home or in the streets. They manage to get very close to their subjects.
Veteran Amiralay’s The Misfortune of Some (France, 1982) has a much looser style, but tells a universal story about survival in the craziness of war. Merely a Smell (Maher Abi Samra, Lebanon/France, 2006) is a short black-and-white film in which the sound is reduced to what seems essential. The images literally speak for themselves.
These films prove that creative documentaries are being produced in the Arab world. And considering the response of the Damascene audience, they are being appreciated as well, though the audience award winner was a European production: Serbian-German Aleksander Manic’s The Shutka Book of Records, a funny doc about the many champions in the Roma village of Shutka in Macedonia. The film scored a 9.37 out of 10.
Willemien Sanders is an affiliated researcher at the Research Institute for Culture and History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Her PhD project is about documentary filmmaking and ethics. firstname.lastname@example.org