Anthropologists define themselves as scientists who observe the behaviour of people. I doubt that there were any anthropologists at the screenings this Monday and Tuesday at the Royal Film Commission. But the unique documentaries made by Arab filmmakers that hundreds of people saw would certainly qualify as visual anthropology.
These films made by mostly unknown filmmakers gave a rarely seen view of the Arab world and the lives of young Arabs searching for answers to philosophical questions of who they are and what they want.
The four films spanned most of the Levant countries. A whole new world of Arabs in Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon as well as Egypt were featured on the wide screen pontificating on issues ranging from underground music, to religion, tribalism and the attitudes towards the body of women.
The documentaries are part of a three-year programme implemented by the Community Media Network (CMN) with IREX Mena Media programme and funded by the US Middle East Partnership Initiative. The programme is aimed at supporting young filmmakers who are willing to take on some of the Arab society’s taboo issues.
Ayman Bardawil, director of the visual department at CMN calls the made-for television documentaries an opportunity to express themselves in an area that has been out of bounds from traditional media outlets and production companies. "Most well funded documentaries tend to deal with regional issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the historical and touristic attractions," says Bardawil.
Bardawil believes that by delving internally these films have provided a rarely seen picture of what it means to be an Arab youth in the 21st century.
The two-day event was opened with a film about a Jordanian singer Yaza Rossan as he searches for his own musical identity in Amman, Damascus and Beirut. "Hear No Evil,’ directed by Lebannese filmmaker Abdel Salam Akkad takes viewers on an ideological journey as the singer searches for his musical language in the midst of the sounds of the muezzin and audiences of some of his underground colleagues in Lebanon and Syria.
The "Tuk Tuk Diary" produced by Egyptian filmmaker Maha Shaba provides a well-researched reportage of various underground cultural events in Cairo. Using the metaphor of the three-wheel unlicensed tuk tuk she gives us a glimpse of alternative theatre, newspapers and the internet. A Cairo Internet-based radio station is reported to be the highest listened to online station in the world.
Viewers to the shows on Tuesday were treated to the grand opening of a Palestinian-produced documentary "Cup of Coffee" which deals with a case in the rural areas outside of Bethlehem were four Palestinians were killed in tribal conflicts that was resolved by inadequate tribal justice that is sealed with a cup of coffee. Filmmaker Saad Jubran gave Jordanian viewers who are dealing these days with similar tribal crimes a rare look at the human side of these violent tribal squabbles.
The two events’ final showing was another Egyptian film titled, "Private File" by Saad Hindawi and Amal Fawzi a personal report on how men and women in Egypt view issues of virginity and honour. The film’s rare honest portrayal of culturally based discrimination against women was countered with a series of powerful interviews with Egyptian women and men fighting to change these centuries old traditions and cultural biases.
The organisers behind these documentaries have promised that they will work hard at seeking further funding for the production of documentaries that are badly needed if the Arab world is to succeed in breaking out of the tradition and cultural obstacles that have held back the entire society from progressing.
The question remains whether these documentaries will in fact one day be screened on any of the hundred Arab television stations that are producing the same old programmes which show little or no real interest in questioning cultural or social norms.