Panel: B'casters 'vital' to films' success

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Broadcasters and filmmakers must work more closely together to ensure that quality programming reaches a viewing audience, according to a panel discussion that focused on Arab broadcasters and film.

Speaking from the audience, director-producer Osama Qashoo lamented the lack of investment in documentaries, saying that local filmmakers struggle to receive support for their projects and that broadcasters do not devote enough primetime slots to documentaries because they do not generate revenue for the networks.

Senior Commissioning Editor for Al Jazeera, Giles Trendle, countered that the network has a channel dedicated solely to documentaries, the only one of its kind in the Middle East. Network bosses are in talks with U.S. officials to allow Al Jazeera, branded a "terrorist channel" by President Bush, to be broadcast in the U.S.

"There is a huge appetite for documentaries from the region," he said, explaining that Al Jazeera seeks out local filmmakers from all four regional hubs. "We've seen success with 'The Gaza Fixer,' a 20-minute documentary by George Azar about a fixer, who helps journalists, living and working in Palestine. That won second prize at a documentary film festival in London. The Al Jazeera International Television Festival is a great opportunity for filmmakers to receive support from the industry."

Television broadcasters play a vital role in supporting the region's documentary industry, but more must be done to ensure that funding filters down to lone filmmakers, and networks must make a concerted effort to change audience viewing culture by screening more independent productions.

Nabul Issa from MBC said that the broadcaster was looking for films to help launch its own film department.

"The film has to have added value," Adeel Adeeb of Good News Group said. "It has to be sellable locally, regionally and internationally. Filmmakers from the audience said the fate of productions rested with distributors, not filmmakers.

Fadi Ismail, General Manager of O3 Prods., a subsidiary of MBC Group based in Dubai Media City, said that funding is a key issue in documentary making. "It's an uphill struggle. The private sector, the government here, aren't really investing in documentaries because they're seen as controversial, as well as providing no financial returns. We work on a really small budget and the only reason we make it is because our young directors are so dedicated and their prices are so low."

ART Commercial Manager Layli Badr said, "One obstacle is that many Arab broadcasters don't know how to scout for good documentaries, how to find them. When we had a documentary competition and received more than 500 entries we chose none of them."

"Scriptwriting is a big problem here," she added, saying that there is not enough clarity about what broadcasters are looking for from filmmakers. She said more also needed to be done to teach aspiring directors about pitching their projects.

A lively discussion ensued about what constitutes a good film. "I'm a filmmaker myself," said Layli, explaining that despite censorship issues in Egypt, she felt that controversial documentaries and films were increasingly being given more airtime. She gave the example of Marwan Hamed's "The Yacoubian Building," which was made despite initial skepticism from the Egyptian filmmaking community. Censorship is, of course, always a big deciding factor in which films a broadcaster will buy.

"I don't look at it as censorship but as social responsibility," said Badr, whose channel produces 20 films each year. "Our network is a family channel so when we're investing in a production the script has to fit with the values of our channel."

The future of the documentary was also discussed, with more Arab co-productions suggested as a way of increasing the number of documentaries being made.

Ayman Halawani, Rotana Audiovisual's general manager, said that one way to encourage filmmaking was to encourage more Arab co-productions. "Arab films are not grossing much in the Gulf, and part of the focus must be to invest more in Gulf films, to create a balanced programming lineup that includes both commercial and 'artistic' films and documentaries. Pay TV and free-to-air TV are the biggest window for documentaries, and theatrical revenue relies on a younger, cinemagoing market."

Badr said the network produces its own films in part to feed its own cinema channel. "We air two new films a month. The films we buy are mixed quality -- there are good films commercially, and also less successful films, but in the films we produce we always strive for artistic merit."

Ayman Halawani of MBC has his own ambitions, namely to bring cinema to Saudi Arabia. He said however, that progress was slow. A production with Saudi filmmaker Haifa Al Mansour had been put back until later in 2008. "The challenge with Saudi is not just whether cinema is accepted but the fact there are no film labs." He pointed out that the first Saudi film, "How are You" had done well on Showtime.

"There are no KitKats or Pepsis in documentary making," Ismael said. "You can't release low-budget documentaries into the theaters, so television support is key."
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