Proximity From a Distance: Collaborative Filmmaking in Arab Documentaries

Three Berlinale documentaries from the Arab world serve as powerful examples of collaborative filmmaking

By Lili Hering

© Christian Frei Filmproductions

Three women's voices narrate their stories, addressing their audiences: “Dear Sue”, they say, or “Dear Sama”, often whispering over shaky images. Their names are Muna, Nardjes A., and Waad Al-Kateab, and they are filming from Jeddah, Algiers and Aleppo. All three of them narrate their lives in places that limit their freedoms – to move, to love, to express themselves and to make their own decisions.

Similarly, all three of them collaborated with directors set in other (more Western) parts of the world. Muna began filming after Swiss filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures searched for a woman in Saudi Arabia planning to escape the country who would record her journey on an activist chat group, which we can follow in SAUDI RUNAWAY (Switzerland). In NARDJES A. (Algeria/France/Germany/Brazil/Qatar), Brazilian Berlin-based director Karim Ainouz follows the young eponymous activist during the protests that broke out when Algerian Abd Al-Aziz Bouteflika announced his attempt to reach a 5th mandate as president.

These two Panorama Dokumente entries strongly relate to FOR SAMA (UK/Syria), the documentary that got huge attention after an Oscar nomination. Waad Al-Kateab filmed the Syrian revolution and the following siege of East Aleppo for many years before making her way to the UK, where she condensed her material into a first-person documentary together with Edward Watts. Can collaborative filmmaking enable stories to be told from regions where digital image creation is, as everywhere, widely accessible through smartphones, but their reception and distribution is not? Who do these images and narratives belong to, and who do they cater to?

In SAUDI RUNAWAY images are filmed by Muna with her two smartphones: her face and voice are the ones telling a story of living in Saudia Arabia, in a country she calls “stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to gender”, a few weeks before her arranged marriage. Yet the director is Susanne Regina Meures, and Muna is credited as a cinematographer. Set in a claustrophobic environment and filmed solely with hidden cameras, Muna depicts her daily struggles and the patriarchal suppression in images filmed through doors, windows, curtains and the veil she is wearing. “I will try to record what I can, it will be dangerous,” she tells the camera, and through it, her audience.

At times, she addresses “Sue”, the director, directly, as if she were reading a letter to her. The voiceover narrates a dramaturgy set for the final escape, accompanied by a compliant musical score: the decision to escape during a honeymoon in Abu Dhabi, the research into flights and passports, the wedding itself, family reunions, final preparations and discussions over the phone and with herself in front of bathroom mirrors. The consequences of such an escape, and of such a film shooting, would be dire: Muna risks being imprisoned if her flight fails. But what choice does one have when the whole country is set inside a cage, the film asks? The recurring images of a bird in front of her curtained window, seemingly free, visualise her confinement. Who is in control of that narrative, actively looked out for by Meures and filmed by Muna? They shared and discussed the material at a distance over chats on social media, however, the friction between the self-told account, a few text plates contextualizing the process in third person, and much of the editing work (signed by producer Christian Frei) poses questions on collaborative authorship – which nevertheless don't make SAUDI RUNAWAY less powerful.

In FOR SAMA, Al-Kateab, having worked as a journalist for many years reporting from Syria, filmed herself around her family, friends, and her home in a hospital, during everyday life, protests, and bombing. Later, the material got condensed with the aid of Edward Watts. She addresses her daughter Sama through it: it reads like a letter about her homeland, one that Sama will be able to see in lively images in many years, if she wishes to. Corresponding with SAUDI RUNAWAY, it builds up to the escape from her country in a dramatic manner, all the while painting an intimate portrait. NARDJES A. tries to do so, but does not develop the same proximity. “No one knows who organized the demonstrations,” Nardjes recounts in a first person voiceover. Karim Ainouz, who had set out to film an entirely different movie in his father’s homeland Algeria, was taken by surprise at the revolt's outbreak and the energy it created: “Some films ask to be done,” he explained.

NARDJES A. serves as a document of this specific momentum where dysfunctional systems are blown off. Ainouz states that this is “our film, not my film.” Nardjes A. joins him in expressing her thankfulness for being able to bring a part of her and her country to the festival. In this film too, the smartphone instead of a camera is said to be crucial in allowing the crew to film in the midst of the protests, becoming “more about capturing than shooting.” Nevertheless, the images’ appeal is very cinematic and the film in itself lurches at the edges of fiction. While it wishes to be Nardjes A.’s innocent companion in her fight, the director contacted an agent in order to find a protagonist to follow and ended up being referred to the café and theatre where Nardjes works, as she is herself an actress. Credits are therefore given to “casting”, and the fact that all images were not taken in a single day is not hidden yet claimed. Colour grading and sound are intensely played with, creating a poppy aesthetic that the pictures would not have needed. In putting Nardjes at center stage and treating all other revolutionaries as props, the film’s emotions only spring through the images of the movement itself – not the protagonist it has decided on. The revolution here is not focussed on images of repression as they largely appear in the media, rather on joy and celebration as a form of protest.

Nadir Bouhmouchs AMUSSU (Morocco) goes a similar way in portraying political activism through artistic expression. Yet the film is an actual collective experiment in guerrilla filmmaking: Formed around the protests against Africa’s largest silver mine in Imider that led to the extraction of aquifer water, drying out the region and leaving its local population destitute, The Movement on Road '96, “a temporary film collective” as Bouhmouch calls it, turned towards filmmaking as a tool for making their voices heard. Set in south-eastern rural Morocco, Bouhmouch explains that they take all decisions collectively through indigenous methods – be it during the shooting or in the editing process. SILVERED WATER, SYRIA SELF-PORTRAIT (Syria) by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, which played in Cannes in 2014, share their authorship with a supposed “1001 Syrians”: Out of found footage, they combine an astounding document on the Syrian civil war. The deconstruction of authorship, in these cases from Morocco and Syria, is more elementary than the division of filmic labour in categories such as cinematography, directing, and editing. Whilst in cinema, hierarchical power structures are very much at stake, these democratic arrangements try to subvert the systems. In countries where democratic systems are in themselves shattered or at least in the process of shifting, filmmaking becomes in itself a form of civil disobedience. SAUDI RUNAWAY, NARDJES A., and FOR SAMA can all be seen as catering to a Western audience, in a certain dramatic construction supported by music. While the creation of images has democratized enough as to enable everyone to shoot their own material, it appears that in order to successfully share the films with a large audience, many of them still have to rely on collaborative methods and foreign validation to cross borders.