Amir Emary, a disillusioned film critic and festival director from Egypt.
Documentary has a very complex situation in the Arab world. This has to do with many factors: general cultural sphere, film infrastructure and legislation, film culture, and the heavy weight of taboos. Only few people are seriously committed to this field and deserve to be mentioned like the Syrians Omar Amiralay and Osama Mohamad, the Lebanese Jean Khalil Chamoun, the Palestinian Mohammad Bakri and the Egyptian Atyat Al-Abnoudi. Among the younger generation, one should think of the Algerian Malek Bensmail and Tunisians Kamel Regaya and Hichem Ben Ammar... These are very few for a population of more than 300 millions.
The same shortage can be noticed in the number of festivals seriously dedicated to documentaries. Despite the multitude of initiatives from Morocco to the Emirates, only one single festival deserves to be named as such; Ismailia Film Festival for documentaries and short films in Egypt. All others have no real impact on the development of cinema and this specific genre. The main reasons are the involvement of the nondemocratic states, and hence the lack of financial support since this kind of events is not attractive for sponsors. Independent authentic initiatives like those in Agadir (Morocco), Bejaia and Tlemcen (Algeria), Hergla and Douze (Tunisia) suffer from marginalization. Others like Aljazeera Documentary Film Festival depend too much of a marketing policy than of a real interest into cinema and documentary as genre.
To have a broader idea about the situation of documentary's film festivals in the Arab World, we had a conversation with Amir Emary who is considered as a key person from that point of view. He is initially a film critic who knows about cinema and of course about film festivals in the World and more especially about the sphere of film festivals in the Arab World. His testimony is very rich in information because he directed the Ismailia Film Festival two times and was confronted to the practical specificities of organising such an event in a very particular cultural and political sphere.
This interview took place in Cannes film festival (mai 2014) and has as background the comparison between festival's culture in the West and the problematic situation of festivals in the Arab World.
To how many events/festivals do you travel every year? How do you adapt to this intense mobility, and which are the main characteristics an international director must have to be successful?
I attend 7/8 festivals every year but others never stop travelling. It is very important to know how festivals are changing and get updated about new film tendencies in the World. Travelling is important as far as it does not prevent you from working and writing. It should even help you to go forward with your critics writing.
I attend regularly the big festivals like London, Venice, Berlin and Cannes. I don't go to some festivals like Rotterdam (for example) because they are not interesting anymore. Films selected this festival are less and less interesting and the festival is going down.
In general, there is not really a place to Arab cinema in these festivals. They focus more on European cinema.
Which are the oldest festivals in the Arab World and which are their linguistic specificities? Is English always lingua franca for international guests?
Carthage in Tunisia, Cairo in Egypt an Ismailia for documentaries and short films. As for Dubai, Marrakech and Abu Dhabi [that last festival had its final edition in 2014, Editor's note] i they are more recent and were founded in a competitive perspective and as part of a marketing strategy to attract the attention to their countries.
Some festival pay attention to the national language, others are more interested in the English (in the Middle East) and Maghreb's festivals are completely francophone since French is their first language in all publications and in debates and presentations. They ignore completely Arabic subtitles for films supposing that everybody (the Maghreban audience) knows the French language.
Do you find the situation more competitive or collaborative?
I think that we need collaboration and exchange especially because western festival don't pay attention to a lot of shorts and documentaries coming from the Middle East despite their artistic style and daring subjects. Western film festival, in France, Germany and the Netherlands for example, are mostly interested into political films dealing with subject which are attractive for the western media such as Islamic extremism, terrorism and revolutions without looking at films as such. They would be happy with a film as far as it deals with these subjects even if it is mediocre cinematographically.
This is what I personally noticed in Berlin Film Festival two years ago when it screened films about the "Arab Spring" even though some of them where far from being films even. Some festival directors in the West, like the one of Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival, are also snobbish towards Arab festivals in comparison with Israeli festivals.
They have a naive orientalist vision about the Arab World made of superficial stereotypes which can be found in several films like the figures of the "old man", slavery en Sultan's harem and so on.
How do you see collaboration in the documentary's festivals sphere? Has it changed in the last years?
Competition has a very negative impact. Things turned to a kind of collaboration between mafia gangs based on the exchange of interest and services. Films are hence selected very often not because of their quality but because of the connection of their owners with the programmers of Arab festivals. Even film funds of some festivals are working in such way. I think that there should be no competition in the reality but there is a kind of tribal wars between festivals despite all what is said about collaboration.
A lot of people organizing film festivals started as filmmakers, what is in your opinion on the importance of knowing in first person about the multiple facets of working in documentary: producer, filmmaker, programmer, critic? Was it like this in your case? How you started to collaborate with Ismailia?
I worked for many years in the Arabic department of the BBC dealing with radio, television and digital press. I was involved in many short docs as scriptwriter, executive producer or editor. I even edited some films myself and prepared visual products for broadcasting. I served also in many TV channels like Aljazeera and Abu Dhabi TV,... Therefore, I served in many juries in different festivals specialized in documentary such as Teheran Film Fest and Oberhausen Film Fest among others. I write very often essays and analytical articles on documentaries and I think I have an important experience in this field.
On another hand, I'm one of the first people who practiced the so called "methodical film criticism," I mean criticism based on film analyses not on some kind of superficial journalistic impressions about films. I was among the first members of the Egyptian Film Critics Organization founded in 1974. In 2002, I was elected as chairperson of this same organisation for which I organised many film events such as the Chinese Film Week and I published a book about the new Chinese cinema. I organised also the Classic Documentary Film Week on which I also published another book. I published around 13 books on cinema and film criticism.
In 2001, the head of the Egyptian Film Centre asked me to be the Director of the Ismailia Film Festival in a very special context right after the 9/11 events [September 11 attacks on World Trade Center, New-York, in 2001, Editor's note]. I succeeded in it despite all the difficulties. In 2012, I was back with the same function. In the two times, I was appointed in the same position in order to save the festival in a short time.
The 2012's edition took place in the context of the presidential election with a lot of chaos and violence threats. The official institution was always dealing with me as an expert in cinema and in festivals that I usually attended since 1980 until now. I was never appointed in a permanent position, but I always left once my mission accomplished.
Compare Ismailia's characteristics with other similar festivals of the world? Especially those specialized in documentary?
Ismailia film festival for Documentaries and short films was founded in 1992. It started as a small film event later it grew up and became more open to international film experiences. Unfortunately, it faced many administrative and bureaucratic difficulties for being under the power of the official institutions of the ministry of culture. In 1995, it has to be suspended for five years.
The 2001 edition, which I directed, was called the "come back edition." [The upcoming edition of 2016 will be the 18th edition (20-26 April 2016) with a suspension in 2015, Editor's note]. The festival has four competitions: feature documentary, short docs, short fiction films and short animation.
Ismailia is a good international festival dealing with this kind of cinema in its region in addition to being open on the rest of the world. It suffers especially from the lack of financial support from the government. It suffers also from the too heavy control of this latter besides the influence of the corrupted bureaucracy of the ministry of culture. What makes it worse is the absence of the festival archives, its own offices far from the building of the National Film Centre and a professional crew working continuously during the whole year. Comparing Ismailia on the one side and Clermont Ferrant and Oberhausen on the other side is comparing life in Egypt with the one in Germany and France.
How have your festival been affected by the Arab Spring? In organization? In programming? In audience response?
The 2012 edition, which I directed, was the first after what was called the "Arab Spring". That's why there was a special program called " the revolution seen from the other side" dedicated to feature documentaries made by Europeans filmmakers about the Egyptian revolution of January 2011. There was also another section for films about women and the revolution I mean films dealing with the subject from the viewpoint of women as filmmakers or those focusing on the role of women in the revolution as a subject. For that edition, the festival counted on young filmmakers and critics representing the revolution and I think that it is going on in the same directing.
And other similar festivals in the region?
Aljazeera Documentary Film Festival is a big festival but it has no influence because it is not open on the region where it is taking place and because of its bad direction because of its too much conservative politics in selecting films. In addition to that, it seems too depending on Aljazeera TV channel more than an international film festival freely open on all kinds of ideas and cultures. There is also a small festival in Tangiers in Morocco which is dedicated to shorts coming from the Mediterranean see.
Teheran film festival for docs and shorts has also thoroughly deteriorated because of censurship and its non-specialized staf which is made only of the regime's servants. There are a lot of films but there is no attention paied to the artistic criterias.
Tell me about the reasons that took you to leave the direction of the festival.
I am an independent film critic. That means that I am free from any control of the state institutions. My opinion on cultural policy is, publicly and continuously known and this seems not to be appreciated by officials, and different ministers of culture. In addition to that, I did not succeed in convincing any minister of culture of the necessity of at least four years for a contract. They are used to make contracts for few months in connection with the end of the financial year. Therefore you can't make plans for the future and you are forced to think only how to assume your responsibility towards the edition your are asked to organize in a very short time and with a very small budget. This costs a lot of nerves. Very often, I had to work for 12 hours per day without any holiday at all. This was not acceptable for my collaborators who were officials employees of the Egyptian Film Centre with whom I was forced to work despite their inefficacity and their lack of experience. You have no choice when you have such a small budget.
Working in the frame of the Egyptian state's system is a disagreeable suffering. The Director of a festival is not only in charge of planning and supervising the different aspect of the organization, but he must also take care personally of every detail like the editing of the catalogue and the double check of the names and titles of the films in the two languages [Arabic and English, Editor's note] in the official program. He has to take care also personally of the contacts with filmmakers so that they send their films on time. This is too much for any person especially when you have quite no budget, no specialized professional crew, in a short time and without durable contract.
Do you collaborate with other similar events?
I am not interested in serving film festivals. I consider myself an intellectual with a certain vision on cinema and on the world. My independence from groups and gangs prevents me from working for festivals you are talking about. These events usually seek collaboration with officials with influence on festival organized by the state whether it is in Egypt or in any other Arab country. When I was director of the Ismailia Film Festival, every body was calling me seeking my friendship. Now nobody calls me because I am for no use in his or her point of view. I am even dangerous for them because I am a free critic not serving any institution but I follow only my intellectual convictions.
Which were the difficulties to finance your festival?
Initially all festivals dealing with documentary are exclusively financed by governments. Sponsors are not interested in such events. As a matter of fact, I failed in convincing the public Egyptian television to support the Ismailia Film Festival. I even was said that they wanted the festival to help them with the marketing of their own films.
Do you see any relationship between documentary's industry and festivals from the perspective of new technological changes?
Festivals willingly program films made with digital cameras and even mobiles films are having their own festivals nowadays. This has a big impact since it encourages young filmmakers to make many films and also to give them a platform to screen these films. This is very positive for sure.
Do you have any program to produce films, or fund them? Such as pitching forums or development workshops?
There are really no film schools in the Arab world. There are only workshops but these are short periods they cannot be effective like real film schools. I founded a company for this purpose three years ago. Unfortunately, I had to stop it because of the big troubles in Egypt and go back to London.
The company organized many special events and film workshop in collaboration with a private school and personal financing without any financial subsidies except the participation's fees of the students. Many important filmmakers, directors, scriptwriters and directors of photography took part to these activities and it was a big success. Because of the violence and the troubles, it was unfortunately not easy for the student to attend the school. Therefore, it was not possible to continue.
10/10/2009 > 17/10/2009 festival |Ã‰gypte | IsmaÃ¯lia International Festival for Documentary & Short Films 2009 Ismailia International Film Festival for documentary and short films takes place every year in Ismailia (Egypt) to promote an intercultural dialogue for a deeper understanding of others by presenting their creative works to the audience