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Where Shakespeare Meets Scheherazade: Towards a North-South Camaraderie in Documentary

By Orwa Nyrabia

Editor’s Note: Orwa Nyrabia is the artistic director of International Documentary Filmmaker Amsterdam (IDFA). He was born in Syria, where, in 2002, with his partner, Diana el Jeiroudi, he launched the first independent documentary production company in the country. They later founded DOX BOX, the leading documentary festival in the Arab region. As a producer, his films have earned numerous honors, including a Sundance Grand Jury Prize and a Grierson Award. What follows is the edited version the keynote address that he delivered at Getting Real ’18, via Skype.


Where I come from, there is no discussion regarding who was the greatest storyteller of all time. There is only one: Scheherazade, a woman who was married to a despot king. He had a habit of getting bored of women; he would marry one, then soon after he’d kill her and find another. Because of that, Scheherazade had to find a way to stay alive. Each night she would start telling him a story, and by dawn she’d stop talking, leaving him unable to resist wanting to know what happened next. He would have to wait until the next evening to hear the rest of the story. When she would reach the end of one story, she would weave another into it, ensuring that none of her stories would ever end. She did this for 1,000 nights. By night 1,001, when the king realized that she could go on forever, and he would have to surrender, she won. To Scheherazade, storytelling was a way of survival. Storytelling was a necessity. 

Given the nature of keynotes, I will talk about myself. It’s not usually what I do, but it seems appropriate. I usually mention that I grew up in Homs, Syria—a city everybody got to know only when it was being destroyed. But that’s not the entire truth about where I grew up.

In Homs, I spent much of my childhood at the walls of Troy with Achilles, on the Alps with Hannibal and his elephants, and on the back of a mythological flying beast with the King of Yemen, Thi Yazan. My father was a political prisoner. I lived with my mother and she expected to be imprisoned too. I was afraid of reality as a kid. I lived in mythology. It was my safety; this might be the reason I studied to be an actor. Following a few acting experiences, I decided I didn’t want that. Documentary film felt like the right outlet for my anger and a fulfilling response to the terrible reality around me. In documentary film, the great works showed me that even when you make a film about yourself, it can still be ruthless, it can be as honestly harsh and sincere as can be, and by that—only by that—it becomes meaningful for everybody.
It was in my lifetime that conferences like this, streamed via the Internet, became normal and expected. Fifteen years ago, I consulted Ask Jeeves about documentary filmmakers. I needed a community and I had questions and there was nobody around me to answer them. I found The D-Word. It was the best form of community I could have found. Where I grew up and started making documentary films, travel was difficult, it was too expensive for the likes of me, and even after the Internet came into being, we were among the last countries to be connected. Before becoming president, Bashar Assad said publicly that the “Syrian people are not ready for the Internet yet.” He was one of the few dictators who would casually question the worth of millions of human beings. It took until 2003 for us to be introduced to the sound of a modem connection. The magic of finding a documentary community—people you could address your naive questions to and get answers—was life-changing. Answering questions and sharing knowledge is a noble form of solidarity that the documentary community excels in.

Photo courtesy of AMPAS.

Today, if we look at the reality of doc filmmakers around the world, we’ll see that they are still being tortured, exiled and killed—more than ever before. Not everywhere in the same way, not everywhere with the same graphic violence, but everywhere in one way or another. There is a normalization of what happens in Russia, for example; Oleg Sentsov’s 145-day hunger strike stopped making the news. This will affect all of us. Filmmakers are being persecuted every day around the world, and they face lobbying campaigns, mobility restrictions and financing limitations.  At the same time, they are perceived as “important” much more than before.
In Europe, as in many other parts of the world today, it’s a special moment with the rise of the right wing. Budgets are being aggressively cut back as Europe’s social democracy and public welfare state are being challenged. The battle now, or one of the battles, is over the entire future of public broadcasting. Solutions and political compromises come at the expense of the filmmaker. The openness and pluralism of public broadcasting are also at stake. This means the “national identity” parameters of a film to be funded—language, content, nationality—are becoming more and more closed and narrowly defined. Meanwhile, there is the other half of the world, the Southern Hemisphere, where we can observe and measure a surge in the number of documentary films and filmmakers despite the lack of democracy and funding—a surge comparable to the era of liberation movements in the 1960s. Southern filmmakers are carving out their place in festivals and on screens, but their share is still way too small. This timid acknowledgment comes after decades of feeling misrepresented; it comes on top of a massive collective pain over the questions of representation. There is accumulated fortune in the North, but major Northern markets are also self-absorbed and self-contained. They do not acknowledge the necessity of looking outside their borders. They generally do not speak other languages and have very little curiosity about other cultures—which results in a lot of stereotyping and discrimination, both conscious and unconscious.

The Southern Hemisphere is, in many ways and not economically, pushing the history of docs. I believe this is the outcome of digital video and the Internet; it took two decades for the results to come out. The North has the educational institutions, the money and the technology, while the South has stories, dedication and motivation. The South is free from the institutionalization and the industrialization of film. Yet it is pressured to yield. It is pressured to change its Gods and believe in Aristotle’s Poetics, adhering to a three-chapter structure, standardized film durations, basic “genre” classifications, and in the questionable conclusions of what works, what doesn’t work, what matters and what doesn’t. An outstanding Southern filmmaker with a project gets imported from the South to the North. The North profits from the talent, and then it's not here anymore, and not there either; it becomes out of place and irrelevant. The exceptions of star Southerners do not change the bottom line. 

This seems like a simple binary, but it is not. It is a system. In such cases, the market sees the film, a good product, but doesn’t care much about the filmmaker and their career. Individuals, with good will and intentions, care about the individual filmmaker as a subject for proving their own goodness, leaving the “subject” in an “objectified” state, as worthy of compassion but not as an equal with a future, not as a colleague or even a competitor. The opportunity of learning from each other, of testing a mutual future, of advancing, has lost this way. 

It might be risky to say, but the camaraderie of filmmakers, North and South, is the key. Maybe Northern filmmakers need to take a break from making films in the South and take an active role in supporting their Southern colleagues to tell their own stories with their own original voices, expressions and languages. This could disrupt the system and propose a new paradigm. It can be a form of alternative interventionism. What is happening in the South is shaping the North, and vice versa. We cannot accept nationalistic claims of the irrelevance of the narrative, language, opinions and creative expression of the other. We need to acknowledge the failure of the status quo. It is also important to mention that we “need” all the pluralism we can get. It is essential that we do not bluff ourselves and others by making our own interest seem to be our good deed. It is not charity and not even good will; it is actually not an option. We just need more voices in order to survive the coming era. 

Now, I would very much like to repeat this entire argument and replace “Southern filmmaker” with “female filmmaker” and see if it doesn’t work well, but I leave this to you.

Still, be it North or South, and despite all the problems, there’s more interest in documentary film nowadays than ever before. A new generation is more interested in reality and would like to learn and be challenged. Documentary film is more and more important at Cannes, Berlin and Venice. The temples of the star system, of the magic of the movies, are coming closer, realizing the importance of documentary film, seeing the opportunity, the pressure, the demand. The same applies to the market, with its slow but steady progress. While it is true that documentary films and filmmakers are still second class in the mindset of a fiction-priority film market and festivals, this genre is impossible to ignore.

Photo courtesy of AMPAS.

Streaming giants are shaking the film world in ways not yet clear or easy to judge. The industry is going through a transitional phase and as in all transitions, there are high risks, but there are also opportunities. Documentary film seems to be benefiting the change, but there can be more to this than meets the eye. We see more nonprofits are ready to fund documentary film. There is more interest in documentary as a tool for lobbying. Advertising agencies have started to promote documentary films to their clients; for the same cost of a slick 30-second ad, they can produce a documentary film. “We can get the film to festivals and the brand becomes an inspiration; a 30-second ad doesn’t offer this,” one account manager told me. Even so, 30-second ads have adopted a documentary style in the past few years; they use the documentary style because they know it sells. 
Doc style sells. But is documentary film on sale? 
This is becoming a bigger question as music labels are interested in documentary film to improve sales on an album or to revive those of a forgotten star. Documentary films or biopics? It is a question of feasibility. Religious institutions have joined the wave too, funding documentary films about their prominent celebrities and using the power of the Lord to support their distribution. One has to stop and ask: How do we understand integrity now? 
Documentary film uses many tools—journalism, art, music, theater, poetry—but it also can be a tool for politics. The question here is not whether to accept making a film promoting what I disagree with for good pay, if I am a sellout. The more relevant question is whether to make a film promoting what I actually agree with. It is tempting to seize an opportunity to make one’s own life better and lobby for a good cause. But is this the role of film? What does this mean to the history of film, to the definition of film? And would propaganda ever be positive? 
Documentary filmmakers deserve to be paid better and to be acknowledged better too. Each documentary filmmaker puts their life on the line in a different way. But the new interest in docs has many facets and can go in one of many different ways. How can we face this challenge without simply falling into a savage capitalist market paradigm? It would be a pity to discover that the documentary film community was actually standing against an unfair, unjust and exploitative reality and resisting a world without integrity, only because there was no chance of making money. It would be painful to even imagine that when money showed up, we dealt with it just like everybody else: we criticized. 
If we cave in to the current trend, we will end up with many poorer documentary filmmakers and a few who make too many times more. This will not be a matter of who is more talented. It will be a different kind of talent that will prevail, not that of creative filmmaking. We will only repeat the same story. We talk about resistance in many of our films, but can we actually resist when it comes to our own? 
An old friend of mine wrote on Facebook this morning that his 6-year-old son, Zein, complained that it did not pay for him to play video games online. He complained about the price and said, “Why is it so expensive?” The father started a long lecture about the market and capitalism and then he said to his son, “Why not design your own game and give it to your friends?” Zein said, “Great idea! Then I can sell it for $5 per download and make a lot of money...”. 
Why did we start doing this in first place? Why care about documentary film? Is it a necessity? A way to survive a turbulent reality? Is it a craft? Do we make a living fighting for a better world or is the other way around? We need to face reality and maintain integrity. Working in documentary film is an honor and a responsibility, not only towards society and history, but also towards the art of documentary filmmaking itself. Today we have an opportunity to seize.