Greenhouse Program Cultivates Peace, Movies in Middle East

It’s day four of the year’s final seminar for Greenhouse, a development program for Middle Eastern and North African documentary filmmakers, and in any other place or time, the scene unfolding on a hot summer night in Izmir, a port city along Turkey’s Aegean coast, would be considered extraordinary. The Israelis and Palestinians, Turks, Iranians, Afghans and Moroccans all melding together on the dance floor knock back shots and trade hugs and jokes.

The program, now in its ninth year, is a grassroots documentary incubator comprised, over the course of 12 months, of three weeklong intensive seminars and dozens of pitch drafts that lead to a completed trailer, revised over and over under the guidance of industry mentors. A joint initiative of Israel’s New Fund for Cinema and Television, Turkey’s Ankara Cinema Assn. and Morocco’s Marrakesh School of Visual Arts — with partners in U.S., Spain, France and the Netherlands — Greenhouse culminates each year with a pitch session in front of industry professionals and content commissioners from the BBC, Sundance, Berlin’s World Cinema Fund and its Co-Production Market, documentary festival programmers and other European and Middle Eastern broadcasters, who also spend an afternoon in private meetings with each filmmaker, offering feedback and potential partnership ideas.

Until 2013, Greenhouse was supported by EuroMed Audiovisual, a film initiative sponsored by the European Union. Today, the bulk of its funding — which covers airfare and production costs for both filmmakers and mentors to attend the three annual seminars — comes from Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and a number of private donors.

“It’s not about Israelis or Palestinians. It’s a film market,” explains director Abu Sidu. “Here there is no nationality or conflict, no violence. We are all filmmakers. Cinema gathers people together.”

Greenhouse’s greatest success is the Oscar-nommed “5 Broken Cameras,” which Palestinian helmer Emad Bernat brought to the program as a rough, unformed film about Palestinian residents of the village of Bil’in and their years-long protest against the building of Israeli settlements there. Through Greenhouse, Burnat connected with his co-director, Israeli helmer Guy Davidi, and overhauled his script into a first-hand account of his life in the Israeli settlements, anchored by the vicissitudes of how those five cameras became shattered, and the milestones in the life of his youngest son. Other Greenhouse successes include Orhan Eskikoy and Ozgur Dogan’s 2008 “On the Way to School,” which won, among other kudos, the Black Pearl award for best doc at the Middle East Film Festival, and was released theatrically in Turkey; and 2010’s “A Film Unfinished,” which won the World Cinema Doc award at Sundance, and secured a U.S. release with distributor Oscilliscope.

“A lot of the filmmakers in this region are interested in telling the stories of their own backyards, and they are incredible stories,” says Bruni Burres, who has been working with Greenhouse as a mentor and adviser for the past five years. “Greenhouse is able to get the participants to a place where they are internationally competitive, where they are eligible for grants from Sundance or Amsterdam or Tribeca. That wouldn’t happen without us.”

This year’s highlight’s include Moroccan filmmaker Yakout Elhabibi’s tale of marijuana farmers in her nation’s hinterlands, “Children’s Games”; Israeli Idan Glikzelig’s “State of War,” for which he spent a year chronicling his nation’s obsession with war preparations; and Sidu’s pic, which used footage from the weddings of her family members, in exile across the region, to bring the realities of the occupation into focus.

Projects about grassroots feminism in Iran, rape and incest in Afghanistan, and LGBT rights in Turkey round out this year’s Greenhouse crop.

“I feel like I’m living an alternative reality through Greenhouse,” says Sigal Yehuda, the program’s Tel Aviv-based director. “It shows us how we could live peacefully in this region, and understand each other. For nine years, three times a year with different filmmakers from all across the region, we do (just that).”

Yehuda, who was raised in a Persian-speaking Israeli home by Iranian parents, says that at each seminar, she is amazed by how vast the filmmakers’ cultural middle ground is.

Ahmet Boyacioglu, who chairs the Ankara Cinema Foundation, adds that she’s impressed by the incubator’s success rate. “Steven Spielberg once said if you make a bad film, the film is a bastard. And if you make a good film, it has 100 fathers. In the last nine years, we have managed to create and develop films that win awards. We have hundreds of fathers.”

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