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Reflecting politics: documentary filmmaking in the Arab world

The Dubai International Film Festival, the Doha Film Institute and Al Jazeera; just three examples of institutions and events contributing to, and reflecting the influx of, the rise of documentary film production in the region.

Arab documentaries found themselves almost in a ghetto around the 80s and 90s, struggling to step outside the state dominated arena. And if they were made, they were often funded or part funded from abroad.

But now the market is changing, the game changer upon reflection being the launch of Al Jazeera in the late 90s.

The Arab film world is getting busier and one of the biggest growing sub industries within this is the growth of the regional documentary section. Each year the documentary category has showcased an increasingly impressive range of stories and storytelling and more and more films make it into the big film festivals across the world.

If you think this is good news then wait for it, it gets even better. The amount of female documentary directors within the Arab filmmaking scene is booming. Last year, most of the documentaries in the Dubai International Film Festival were directed by women.

There was The Scream by Khadiya Al Salami, which dealt with the protests that took place in Yemen, and the Tunisian revolution was the subject of It Was Better Tomorrow, from Hinde Boujemaa.

Also in places like Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco and Lebanon female documentary directors are popping up what you could positively call ‘en masse’. Despite the harshness of the industry - filmmaking is often still not considered a ‘real’ job among the more conservative Arabs and funding is hard to come by - their male counterparts are doing well too. Globalization and a more widespread access to foreign media have contributed to this push for the reflection of reality in filmmaking.

There seems to be a real drive to take local, everyday stories and shine a light on them in the hope to bring about change. Many a work is inspired by the on-going difficult political developments and breaches of human and especially female rights.

Dance of Outlaws by Mohamed El Aboudi, for example, considers the plight of women across Morocco who have been rejected by their families and live without identities. And Infiltrators by Khaled Jaffar unravels a series of methods used by Palestinians to battle from one side of the Israeli Wall to the other.

With technology making films increasingly cheaper to produce and the infrastructure of getting work out to audiences worldwide improving, documentaries are becoming a great way to lobby for change when necessary.

Hopefully the scene will develop along the same lines but with a shift in tone. If documentary filmmakers keep reflecting what is happening in their political arena then a trend in upbeat stories would be a good sign.  

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