Marco Orsini, president of the not-for-profit International Emerging Film Talent Association (IEFTA), is firmly in favor of a back to basics distribution approach for independent films from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the Horn of Africa and some parts of South Asia.

Orsini says that quality independent films would most likely be selected at some high-end film festivals and attract sales agents, but COVID-19 shut down many of the potential theatrical markets for these films. Many went straight to VOD platforms instead.

“I think a lot of the VOD platforms have begun to put a sting into how sales agents work, they become diminished,” Orsini told Variety in an interview conducted at the recent El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt. “But at the same time, filmmakers, I feel, have been brainwashed to believe that the golden carrot is Netflix.”

“I think that would be a great end game… but people are forgetting the old-fashioned way of going to film festivals, talking to distributors and sales agents, getting your film reviewed, speaking with critics, talking to theaters, doing a proper strategy for either film festivals or a release depending on the markets, and doing it the old-fashioned way in the sense of going market to market and working it,” said Orsini.

Orsini cites the example of Moges Tafesse’s 2019 Ethiopian film “Enchained,” which after local success, was picked up by U.K.-based outfit Habeshaview. The film released in an area of London with a high concentration of Ethiopians and it sold out screenings for a week. The experiment was successfully repeated in Washington D.C. and the film was headed to New York when COVID struck.

IEFTA gets involved very early on in the film’s lifecycle, from the script stage. Projects are identified by local curators and IEFTA. With the help of in-house copywriters, it helps polish the project in terms of language and presentation to a sheen acceptable to global development labs. Many of the filmmakers do not have English, the accepted lingua franca worldwide, as a first language.

IEFTA is on hand as an advisor, including help with contracts, while the project goes through financing and production. It steps in again actively during its subsequent trajectory, opening sales, press and distribution doors. Films that have benefited from the IEFTA touch include Ali El Arabi’s sport and refugee based documentary “Captains of Za’atari” (Egypt) which it identified as a potential project at the 2019 edition of El Gouna, and went on to a stellar festival run in 2021 beginning with Sundance; “Enchained”; Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s “The Salt in Our Waters” (Bangladesh); and May Odeh’s “200 Meters” (Palestine).

“Beyond the Raging Sea,” directed by Orsini, also found distribution using this approach.

“Of course, everyone wants to watch blockbuster films, and there is that audience, but it’s not a one size fits all,” said Orsini. “There is that other audience that are looking for foreign films, subtitled films, animation narratives, documentary, hybrid feature films – films that are independent in their nature on how they are made, but commercial enough that they would play in a theater and potentially generate revenue for both sides.”

IEFTA also operates the annual Refugee Voices in Film initiative, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The initiative commissions and showcases several short films dealing with aspects of the global refugee crisis. The first four editions took place at the Cannes Market and this year’s at El Gouna.

Meanwhile, IEFTA’s quest to bring independent films to cinemas ahead of their VOD run continues. “We will fight tooth and nail for the filmmakers that we’re working with,” said Orsini. “We act as a for-profit entity, like an agent, like a manager, like a publicist, like an attorney, like a sales agent. We’re all of that as if we’re for profit as if we’re getting a dime out of it. And we actually spend money doing it.”