The Syrian public and its cinema: Funding priorities - Part II

Do Syrian directors or producers have a role in determining the target audience?

04 December 2019

Aman Bezreh

Aman Bezreh is a Syrian journalist.

This article is part of a dossier in partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy's North Africa West Asia page, exploring the emerging post-2011 Syrian cinema: its politics, production challenges, censorship, viewership, and where it may be heading next. This project is coordinated by Maya Abyad, Enrico De Angelis and Walid el-Houri, and supported by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Today, there is a variety of concerned parties interested in funding feature films and documentaries, including humanitarian organizations as well as international and cultural ones. But how do funders determine the target audience for these films? Do Syrian directors or producers have a role in determining the target audience? Do the films and documentaries that narrate Syrian events reach the Syrian public itself?

According to Syrian director and writer Wahat al-Raheb: "although the war has turned half the Syrian public into refugees and displaced populations, Syrians still try to keep up with everything that is produced by Syrians or that concerns the Syrian cause, even if solely through the internet. It is possible to say that Syrians eagerly hunt and pick any film that honestly conveys their cause and tragedy, which have become global. Moreover, many people around the world are eager to follow everything related to the Syrian revolution which has come to embody the crime of our times. This is reflected in the nomination of Syrian films for the most important international awards, despite their limited budgets.”

The target audience for these films constitutes a priority for the donor as well, asserts al-Raheb: when funding or support is requested for Syrian films, the question posed by most of the funding agencies directed to the director or the screenwriter is always about the target audience for their films.

Al-Raheb continues: “Sometimes this targeting is positive when it is intended to reach the broader audience, which is often the youth, who constitute the primary target. And at other times, it is largely negative and misleading, when it seeks to offer a purely political message or what is often a partial view of people's issues and concerns plucked out of their general political, economic, social and cultural contexts.”

This leads to presenting films that are implicitly devoid of their content while claiming to portray a humanitarian cause, but they deal with the content on the surface in a flat manner, thereby obscuring the essence of the problems and issues. This leads to aggravating and exacerbating the conflict. These institutions also prioritize funding films that focus on tolerance, coexistence, gender issues, women's and human rights issues, or political identity, but in a fragmented way, taken out of context.

El-Raheb recalls her experience with a French body that agreed to fund her film Ru’aa Haalima, when the said funders requested that she remove the political background of the film, which was related to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the request prompted her to reject the conditions and grant altogether. The conditions imposed on the director, which extract the film from its context and eschew the essence of the issue at hand usually come from artistic and cultural bodies, rather than civil associations and organizations.

Financial support has both advantages and disadvantages, asserts el-Raheb, and she adds that there is no doubt that the presence of external funders also has its advantages and disadvantages. While their support has focused on documentary films, because of their easy consumption and informative nature, meeting the need to boost the media industry and its insatiable appetite for documentary material, and because these are less expensive than the more impacting and timeless feature films, the most important advantages are achieved when such funders are able to provide credibility and financial support to achieve the highest quality required to produce a good film.

The Syrian journalist and filmmaker, Waad al-Khatib, who documented the experience of her siege in Aleppo, recalls her experience regarding documentaries: “Funding for documentaries always determines the target audience, and each funding determines its audience and how the story is told. If funding comes from a British body, the target audience will be European and English, so the story should include more context about the war in Syria and a more detailed explanation so that the Western viewer can engage with the film. In the case where the funder is a news agency, it usually requires impartiality in telling the story, which affects the narrative or the need to point the finger at a particular party.” However, al-Khatib adds, “this can be avoided when quotes are taken from sources specifying, for example, who bombed a particular area and thereby satisfying the documenting impulse.”

El-Raheb provides the example of one of the documentaries she saw, which achieved an important level in telling the history of the Syrian revolution and its peaceful demonstrations in Homs, following one of its symbols, Abdul Basit al-Sarout. Eventually, however, the director made the decision, as I understood later, to cancel the participation of one of the symbols of the revolution, Fadwa Suleiman, in the demonstrations where she stood by al-Sarout, at the direction of the Western funding producer. This, in her view, could only be justified by a political agenda bent on entrenching Islamophobia, and seeking to present the Syrian revolution as extremist, Islamized and backward, barring the participation of women and not seeing their political potential. This became clear when, after all the repression and killings during these demonstrations, the hero eventually returned riding in an ISIS car.

Ziad Kalthoum, the director of the documentary Ta’m al-Asmant (“The Taste of Cement”), stresses the role of funding bodies in attracting a particular audience. He asserts that there are Syrian documentaries that have attracted a European audience at the expense of the Syrian public in order to serve the interests of the Western funders. Kalthoum mentions the example of director Talal Derki's documentary “On Fathers and Sons”, whose audience is mostly European, adding that this type of film is specifically intended for a Western audience. The film did not succeed in convincingly treating the main character in the film, Abu Osama, for him to reach the Syrian audience, he was presented in the stereotypical way in which the West sees the terrorist and which suits the Western public's view of what is happening in Syria.

Distributing bodies also play a role in identifying the target audience. Kalthoum mentions that when his documentary Ta’m al-Asmant was released in Japan, the Japanese distributors changed the name of the film to attract a wider audience. The film was thus released under the title Memory of Cement in order to engage an audience who has been closely witnessing the continuous urban development of the country since the nuclear attack in 1945. Kalthoum adds that the distributor has the right to change the title of the film to target an audience provided that the new title remains in the context of the idea of ​​the film and its goal.

Qatl Mu'lan ("Broadcast Murder"): The movie

El-Raheb says that the case of her film Qatl Mu’lan was different. Madani and Serge, the two funding bodies of the film, both civil organizations concerned with human rights issues, specifically decided to fund a collection of short films focusing on women's issues; however they are not specialized in the production of films. She adds that the two parties identified the target audience to serve their humanitarian orientations, without imposing any framing that determined how to address the topic. El-Raheb continues to say that the screenplay of Qatl Mu’lan was among their first choices, given that it was the most complexly layered in its expression of the multiple issues related to the suffering and violence of women, and its focus on the marriage of minors in refugee camps, placing it in its general political, economic and social context, and in a time duration not exceeding 15 minutes.

The film recounts the story of an 11-year-old Syrian girl who lives with her family in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. The girl is coerced into marrying a man 25 years older than her by her parents, who are suffering from difficult conditions in refugee camps without work or real assistance. The film comes at a time when the phenomenon of underage marriage is rampant, especially in these camps where several organizations working on human rights and child issues are seeking to raise awareness about these practices and to fight them, which made funding from these organizations easier.

The amount of funding provided by civil society organizations differs from that provided by established film and cultural bodies, which not only affects the quality of the film, but also the reach and spread of the film, for such low-budgeted films do not always meet the requirements of screening at festivals and cinemas. This makes its audience narrowly confined to a small group of people interested in these issues. In an interview with Al-Araby al-Jadeed, El-Raheb mentions that she will bide time with her decision to screen the film until it reaches the festivals in order to convey the voice of Syrians to the world. And indeed this is what happened, the film was invited to feature in the Aarhus Film Festival in Denmark.

El-Raheb tells us that only a film that is generously budgeted and can be shot unhurriedly, with the appropriate equipment needed, and affording the costly techniques for visual effects, is able to meet the conditions for screening in the most important festivals or screening locations, not a film that has few support opportunities.

Ilaa Samaa ("For Sama"): The documentary

The documentary Ilaa Samaa tells the story of Syrian director and journalist Waad al-Khatib, who filmed her life in rebel-held Aleppo, then under constant bombardment and attacks by the Syrian regime. The film tells the story of Wa'ed, who loved and married Dr. Hamza, the sole manager of one of the nine hospitals in eastern Aleppo, and who gave birth to Samaa, to whom the film is dedicated. It also portrays the lives of their friends who shared the experiences of war and the violence that the city was subjected to, and all the challenges that the conflict has imposed on people in general, but women and children in particular.

The entire film is a letter from the mother to her daughter and an attempt to explain why the couple decided to remain in eastern Aleppo. The film was produced and distributed by US and British news channels, Channel 4 News and PBS Frontline, and has won numerous awards. The film's directors, Waad and Edward Watts, also received an Emmy award.

During our interview, Al-Khatib explained that although the film was funded by news channels, it had the freedom to display the story properly, and that the target audience of the film was local and international. The distributors played an important role, as it was shown in international festivals despite the fact that, in some cases, it did not meet the conditions for the screening. The story of the documentary and its content, as featured by the named distributors, helped overcome the obstacles and ensured its screening.

Ilaa Samaa was screened in most European cinemas and remained in cinemas for a good screening period and in famous London cinemas. Tickets were sold-out in Strasbourg for example. The Syrian public was not the first to attend these screenings, but the Europeans were strongly present. The film was also reviewed by foreign parties which was celebrated on the film's website, at the expense of reviews in Arabic. It should also be noted that Ilaa Samaa and Qatl Mu’lan are not available online for free, as is usually the case with many documentaries or films that tell the story of Syrians in wartime.

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