Stronger than fiction: Docs find buyers

Al Jazeera's documentary channel snapping up material

Complete Dubai fest coverage

DUBAI -- News that Qatari broadcast giant Al Jazeera's fledgling documentary channel may grow in 2009 despite the global financial crisis was welcomed by dozens of nonfiction filmmakers gathered at the Dubai International Film Festival on Tuesday.

Montaser Marai, head of production at the nearly two-year-old, Doha-based channel, said that Al Jazeera will use its "not big, but not small" budget to buy 800 hours of documentaries next year and and produce another 300 hours itself.

Co-productions will be welcome and the channel is interested mostly in entertaining short-form docs about the arts, culture and wildlife from the Arab world, Africa, Asia and Latin America, said Marai, a former filmmaker who said he "understands filmmakers concerns" and will "try to find a compromise between their needs and the needs of the market."

But Marai, a Palestinian-Jordanian taking part in a globally diverse DIFF panel discussion about the future of documentaries, found himself in the hot seat.

Lebanese filmmaker Elaine Raheb, founder of cinema cooperative Beirut DC, was skeptical, claiming a lack of freedom in the market for documentaries bought and produced by Arab state-backed TV.

"The documentaries that make it to television in this region are always linked to political agendas," said Raheb, artistic director of the Arab film festival Ayam Beirut Cinem'iya.

Moderator Sean Farnel, director of programming at the Toronto-based Hot Docs film festival, defended Marai and Al Jazeera.

"Nathalie and Montaser are your advocates," Farnel said, also referencing panelist Nathalie Windhorst, head of acquisitions for Dutch broadcaster VPRO, whose late-night slot focuses on documentaries.

But the audience wouldn't let Marai off so easy. John Sinno, head of Arab Film Distribution, a 13-year-old Seattle-based company, wanted to know if Al Jazeera would air a documentary about gays and lesbians.

"It's not that we're told, 'no,' but it's a question of how we're going to approach the subject," said Marai, who claimed the channel had broadcast a documentary about homosexuality but did not name it.

Coming from the Netherlands, where cultural norms contrast starkly with the Arab world, Windhorst said even VPRO paused before airing '70s American porno film "Deep Throat" alongside the recent documentary about its making.

"We like dangerous thinking, and we're not afraid of anything, but still, there was even talk in the Dutch Parliament about this one," Windhorst said.

DIFF documentary competition jurist Jean-Marie Teno, a filmmaker from Cameroon, said he was "appalled" by the notion that Al Jazeera was asking for documentaries that were short and "in the fast-paced style of MTV."

"It's important to ask broadcasters what they wanted to achieve in the long run," Teno said.
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