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A sneak peek of BBC Arabic Festival 2015

Hannah Khalil

Digital Content Producer, About The BBC Blog

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As the judges of the second annual BBC Arabic film and documentary festival gather to select this year’s programme, Festival Marketing Director Sue Davies and Festival Director Sheyma Buali give a flavour of what’s to come in October/November. 

Sue Davies, BBC Arabic Festival Marketing Director:

Why was the festival set up originally and what was it’s aim?

The festival originated for a couple of reasons: As part of the BBC World Service, BBC Arabic has an enormous reach in terms of audiences across the Arab world - it has more than 38 million viewers right across the Arab region. And obviously there’s a huge Arabic community in London that’s hungry for access to cultural happenings, and current affairs from the Arab World, so the BBC Arabic team felt that there was a real opportunity to raise the profile of BBC Arabic in London and reflect back some of the very interesting work that’s being created about the Arab World back to a London audience here, both Arabic speaking and non-Arabic speaking.

So out of that developed this festival and although we call it a 'film festival' it's actually a mixture of films, documentaries and current affairs programming. So anyone who sees it or watches the programmes - because we broadcast them afterwards on BBC Arabic - should get a real sense of a ‘moment in time’ because all of these are very recent works that are made about current happenings, right across the Arab region. So they’re a very accurate snapshot of life that’s being lived, by people that we don’t normally get access to.

Is it hard to programme pieces about such a fast-changing environment like the Arab world?

Because the festival is run as a competition there are some quite stringent rules for applying, and one of them is the timescale - it’s got to have been a relatively recent work. But there are other things that we are looking for as well in terms of the entries: so, for example, for short films; the narrative, the depiction of character is really important – as well as the backdrop to recent events. All the different ingredients that the BBC is showcasing have to add up to a very professional piece of work. We’ve been amazed by the volume of entries that have come through this time, and the calibre has been absolutely outstanding: it’s been a really difficult process getting to a final list.

It’s also worth saying that because some of these entries have a slight distance of time, they’re current but not absolutely 'now' – that allows them space for reflection and discussion about what’s being depicted which is a vital part of the festival. All of the directors are invited to attend and introduce their work to the audience and we programme in discussions after all the showings, with a mixture of directors, journalists, and other interesting figures. The audience seems to really enjoy that – the chance to go into detail about what they’ve just seen on the screen and some of the rational from the directors on why they filmed it a certain way, and what their thinking was when they were actually filming.

One of the things we’ve noticed is that a large number of the entries from last year and also this year's offerings, are very much focused on individuals, they tell a story about individual lives and that seems to be very compelling to the audience that we are attracting. 

How will this year’s festival be different to last? 

We’ve kept the competition and we’ve kept the categories the same, so there are no changes to the overall structure of it, because that worked really well last year. We are still going to have two full days, a whole Saturday and a whole Sunday given over to the screenings and they’re still going to be completely free of charge, and either screened in English or with English subtitles - so still very much trying to attract a similar audience. 

I’d say that the difference is that last year we had just launched the festival, but this year a lot of filmmakers and journalists who last year may have heard about it a little too late in the competition process are obviously aware of us this time round, so we’ve definitely seen an increase in the volume of entries and the standard of them is very high – and hopefully that will be reflected in the final programme, which we want to be really varied and exciting for people. They’re going to see something surprising every time they come in to the Radio Theatre. 

The thing that’s quite unusual about this festival is not just the fact that we are screening these works to predominantly an English-speaking audience – it’s also the fact that it’s happening in the BBC Radio Theatre. This festival is the first time that the Radio Theatre has staged a proper film festival and the first time that the public can get into it for free. It’s all free – not free to put on obviously, but free for the public to come and enjoy.

Sheyma Buali, BBC Arabic Festival Director:

We have a stellar group of judges this year, people whose opinion I highly respect. We wanted a mixture of people who are involved in journalism and film, both here and in the Arab region who are in tune with what it takes to make the sort of films we will be screening. Liliane Landor who’s the head of languages here at the BBC is the only one who is a repeat judge from last year. Safa AlAhmad, is a freelance filmmaker and journalist but she has now made two hard-hitting documentaries for BBC Arabic, she actually opened last year’s festival with her film Saudi’s Secret Uprising.

The rest of the judges range from  those involved in journalism to those involved in cinema. These include the director of the Rory Peck Trust – Tina Carr. The Rory Peck Trust is a foundation that supports freelance journalists. We also have Martin Chulov who is the Middle East Correspondent for The Guardian and based in Beirut. Jason Solomons is a very popular film critic, who broadcasts on TV, radio (including BBC London’s 94.9 with Robert Elms)and in print. It was good to have his input on films from the Arab world which he said at the beginning he wasn’t very familiar with. Orwa Nyrabia who is a Syrian creative documentary producer based in Berlin.  He has made a number of strong, award-winning films in the past few years. And finally, Gisele Khoury, who is a TV Presenter for BBC Arabic and also the president and founder of the Samir Kassir Foundation which promotes press and cultural freedom in the Arab world. 

What excites you most about this year’s offerings?

This year we’ve got a really interesting array of geography – we have films from a few more places than last time – there’s less focus on the usual suspects of countries that normally make films.

We also have really fascinating stories this year – what’s really interesting about BBC Arabic Festival is it’s not a curated festival, the content comes purely from public submissions. Because it is a competition, we are not actually allowed to invite specific films and filmmakers. We make a public, open call. We send alerts to wider lists of filmmakers and film festivals, film schools and other networks letting them know that we are open for submissions, but we are not allowed to ask for specific films. So that gives us, I think, a really unique edge, in the sense that we receive films that don’t make it to other London screens. Two things that make our festival interesting, are that firstly, it’s journalistic and it’s topical; and second, we aren’t the place for popular films and documentaries that you see in other Arab film festivals. We receive films from outside the world cinema networks, these are – on the most part – young journalists and storytellers who are very talented and intelligent and have witnessed a lot. We strongly encouraged amateur filmmakers and citizen journalists to submit. I was very happy to see that our judges, who work in the journalism and cinema milieu, discover new filmmakers too.

There is also the annual Young Journalist Award – it’s the only award which has a material prize. It’s for a non-fiction filmmaker or journalist in the programme who is between 18 and 30 years old. They get £10,000 worth of training, mentorship and equipment. We are the process of organising the training for last year’s winners. Abdelfattah Farag’s training will happen in Cairo this summer. There's also the possibility that he will come to the festival to present the film he makes as a result of that experience.

Are there any trends in submissions?

Without giving too much away, gender, children and migration are reoccurring themes. It’s interesting that this has happened because this year our theme is about power in a changing Arab world – and we really encouraged people to interpret the idea in many different ways and luckily they did.

This year’s BBC Arabic Festival will take place from 30 October – 2 November 2015. The programme will be announced in September and the winners announced on the prize-giving day in the festival. Find out more at the BBC Arabic Festival website

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