Unscripted Drama Is Growing in the Middle East

A new generation of docmakers push the artistic envelope

While filmmaking is a rather new narrative form in the Persian Gulf, a generation of directors is emerging in the Middle East that is revitalizing documentaries.

In the past three or four years, docus from the region have adopted more dynamic storytelling techniques and themes than are found in local narrative fiction, says Abu Dhabi Film Festival programming director Teresa Cavina.

The reason, according to Cavina, is that aspiring Arab directors often use Egyptian masters, such as Youssef Chahine, as their references, so their formative films tend to be works in which “the acting is often emphatic and the plot tends to be melodramatic.”

But docs allow young Arab helmers to break away from the constraints of Egypt’s cinematic tradition and tell their stories in innovative ways. And doc themes have changed over the past few years as well.

“For the Sanad fund (the development and post-production fund of the fest), we used to get pitched lots of documentaries that had to do with political themes,” says Cavina. “But more recently there has been an explosion of documentaries that are refl ections on the world, or on people, or even about politics, but from an indirect perspective.”

Case in point, Cavina says, is “Whispers of the Cities,” from London-based Iraqi director Kasim Abid. The helmer set cameras for several years at busy crossroads in the Palestinian city of Ramallah and in Baghdad, and then just let images tell the story of the changes under way.

“El Gort,” directed by Tunisia’s Hamza Ouni, makes its political point throughits focus on destitute field hands, whose hopeless lives stand as testimony to the fact that revolutions don’t change anything, Cavina says.

Both titles will world preem in Abu Dhabi’s Documentary Feature Competition alongside Gianfranco Rosi’s Venice Golden Lion winner “Sacro GRA,” which looks at the lives of people who live around a Rome ring road.

But while docmakers have pushed the form, Egyptian Ahmad Abdalla’s “Rags and Tatters,” which mixes fictional narrative and documentary footage to portray the aftermath of the revolution in Egypt, rejects traditional narrative structure. “Rags,” which bowed in Toronto, will have its Mideast preem in Abu Dhabi.

“I’ve never seen an Arab movie dare so much,” Cavina says. “It’s also interesting that an Egyptian movie is breaking the conventions of classic storytelling in the Arab world.”

(Pictured: Ahmad Abdalla’s “Rags and Tatters,” which unspools at the Abu Dhabi fest, mixes fiction and documentary.)

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