AMSTERDAM – “Every day, we are bombarded by images of the Arab world: bombings, shooting, hunger and hatred…” It is this “one-sided representation” that IDFA programmers Laura Van Halsema and Isabel Arrate Fernandez, together with Syrian producer and filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia, sought to challenge when assembling Shifting Perspectives: The Arab World, a three-day symposium of sorts, in which 16 films of varying length and vintage were shown to a festival audience, usually with a lively discussion to follow.
The section is the second in a series that began in 2016. “Last year,” says Van Halsema, “we had a program, also called Shifting Perspectives, from which we basically wanted to look at what was left over from the history of colonialism – the slave trade, slavery between Africa as a continent and Europe and the U.S..
The programmers picked films from each of these regions, and then, as they were watching them, we realized right away that there was a blind spot: “We think we know a lot about these places, but it’s always from a European viewpoint, so we started looking for stories by people who were telling their stories from their own perspective.”
Adds Fernandez, “When we started looking at the imagery of Africa, we saw that the dominant image of that continent is quite negative – people dying, starving, being poor. Just… misery. But we were really looking for stories from within.”
“It’s about ownership of images, basically,” says Van Halsema, “and of course the important component is film, and documentary film as an art form. When we look at films like these, we need context right away, and that context tends to be political. And, sure, some of these films are political – but not all of them.”
After last year’s edition, Van Halsema and Fernandez began discussions about a follow-up. “And at that moment,” says Fernandez, “it became clear that the Arab world was somewhat similar, and we immediately knew that it would really interesting to also do a program on that, because the information we get about this region has also been very specific, it’s about ISIS, terrorists, and refugees.”
Unusually for a festival strand, Shifting Perspectives is a hybrid, sitting between premiere platform and retrospective – of the 16 films shown this year, 12 were older films and only four were new, which included Mohamed Siam’s festival opener “Amal” and Usama Ghanoum’s Mid-Length Competition entry “Black Stones,” about hospital workers in the besieged Syrian city of Homs.
“We knew that most of the program would be older films,” says Fernandez, “so we started digging around, looking into the catalogs of other festivals, and looking at films that maybe IDFA had missed, or had not shown in the past, had maybe rejected or lost to other festivals.”
The programmers came up with quite an extensive list and then started the narrowing-down process, by basically asking the question: Does it shift the perspective?”
“In the end,” says Van Fernandez, “what we encountered with the majority of the films that selected [was the realization] that what we usually see is news, or images that are shown in a way that is very distant and only increases the distance from our world, which, in a way, maybe makes it easier to cope with.”
She continues: “Particularly in the last five years. But we never set out to pick films that were going to directly counter an image. They were just telling other stories, showing us what else there is, which brings their world so much closer to ours.”
But as well as simply “showing,” Shifting Perspectives also looks at the way these stories are told. “It’s about letting go of the framework of storytelling,” says Van Halsema, “or at least trying to ignore it. And that, of course, is almost impossible for me, for instance, as I’m not from the Arab world, but I try to put aside all [my preconceptions] and just see what comes from within.
For example, we screened a film called “Civil War” by Mohamad Soueid, which is famous in Lebanon, and it shows a really different way of telling stories. It’s an essay. There’s a lot of references to things that I didn’t know and I’m sure a lot of other people here in Amsterdam didn’t know either. But it’s very interesting to hear Mohamad talk about it, and when you see the response from other [Arab] filmmakers, you begin to see how important this film is and what it’s addressing to a collective psyche. That’s another element of Shifting Perspectives – trying to make you open to what the films actually are.”
So will Shifting Perspectives return next year – and the next? “We haven’t really spoken about it,” says Van Halsema, “but it could, because it’s a very interesting framework.”
For Van Halsema, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a continent or region. It’s an angle [from which] to select, but it’s also a way to have an audience think about and look at documentary film. It can be anything really. It’s about challenging people to think outside their ordinary ways. In the end, it’s an exchange of ideas.”