The International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), the largest of its kind in the world, has just put four documentaries online—two for free and two with a charge ($3.99)—under the heading “Arab Spring.” The four films, available online for the first time, look at a beauty contest in Libya, a Cairo cemetery home to a million homeless people, Moroccan courier-smugglers, and the impact of satellite television in the Middle East, respectively. With the corporate media’s attention quickly shifting away from the slaughter in Syria and the struggle in Libya toward the gag-inducing Royal Wedding, this offering from IDFA couldn’t be better timed.
While political developments in Northern Africa have been in the international media spotlight, IDFA TV presents a programme on the theme of the ‘Arab Spring’. The programme consists of documentaries that have been shown at IDFA in recent years – films from and about the countries where developments are now taking place at a rapid pace: Libya, Egypt and Morocco. The films can be seen online now, either for free or for a small fee.
The programme, which currently consists of five films, focuses on different aspects of everyday life in the region. From a report on the first ever beauty contest in Libya to a look at a taboo-breaking women’s talk show in the Middle East, to a documentary on a city that is home to a million people in a cemetery in Cairo.
More titles will be added to the programme in the near future.
Below are synopses of the films, with links to watch:
Beauty Will Save the World by Pietra Brettkelly (England / New Zealand, 2004) — Tragic and hilarious account of the first Miss Net World beauty contest. In 2002, a Libyan has the brilliant idea to hold the first beauty contest for the most gorgeous Internet model in Libya. The preliminary national rounds, held on the Net, produce a busload of models who proudly set out for Libya, and vaguely remember that once upon a time something was wrong with this country. But what? Only four years ago, Colonel Khadafi was a tyrant from the Axis of Evil, but meanwhile he has been rehabilitated after making a few noncommittal promises. Khadafi niftily plays his trumps: he makes the models, and the journalists, wait for days before going to meet them. And since they have to wait, they might as well take a tour of his bombed house. Result: sobbing models cursing the war and the evil in mankind. BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD is a fly-on-the-wall documentary of the beauty contest for which, it seems, the filmmakers just had to film events from a distance. The absurd spectacle unfolds right before their eyes. They follow the nineteen-year-old American candidate Teca Zendik, who later became the first US honorary consul in Libya in twenty years.
The City of the Dead by Sergio Tréfaut (Egypt / Portugal / Spain, 2009) — In the vast El Arafa cemetery in Cairo, a city has arisen among the tombs and mausoleums. This “city of the dead” has a living population of one million. There are many funerals each day, while life goes on all around: a young shepherd drives his cattle through the small streets, a market woman tries to sell plastic laundry baskets, and children play among the tombstones, flying their kites. No respect for the dead, then. There is, however, an all-pervasive sense of realism: in this necropolis, the living and the dead are bound together into a pact of peace. Directed by Sérgio Tréfaut, The City of the Dead presents us with various aspects of this strange and wonderful enclave. We see the serene and beautiful sand-colored graves as well as the turmoil of a place where a predominantly poor population struggles to survive. The camera movements are calm and measured, as is the voice describing the attractions of this city of the dead, where the rhythm of life is defined by the Koran. Allah may be omnipresent, but that does not stop someone from leaning against a tombstone and burping, calling a passerby a bastard, or openly speaking of a yearning for sex before marriage. As a local woman says, “Living so close to death is bound to bring wisdom.”
One Hundred Meters Away by Juan Luis De No (Spain, 2008) — It’s seven o’clock in the morning in the Spanish border town of Melilla, the southernmost tip of Europe. As soon as the customs house opens, thousands of Moroccans go over the border. While the Moroccan customs officers turn a blind eye, these people bring huge bags of clothes and other merchandise from Spain to the African continent. The couriers, men and women both young and very old, are hired by traders for a pittance. Most smugglers have no choice, as there’s no alternative unskilled labour in the area. The illegal importation, which is the indirect consequence of globalisation, supports around 10.000 Moroccan families in this poor border region. The work is extremely tough, and dangerous to boot. People often get beaten up, and the customs officers are rough on them as well. Filmmaker Juan Luis De No records all of this, filming them, at times with his hidden camera, on their wild scramble over the border. He follows four smugglers at work and at home, where they live in poverty. They’d like to leave Morocco forever, but their passports only allow them to travel to Melilla for a few hours, a mirage of Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar. According to Mustafa, “All 35 million of us want to leave the country.”
Satellite Queens – Behind the Scenes of a Prime Time Arab Talk Show by Bregtje van der Haak (Netherlands / US, 2007) — Satellite Queens – Behind the Scenes of a Prime Time Arab Talk Show begins with brief shots of satellite dishes on flats and houses all over the Middle East, interspersed with footage of four female talk show hosts. The film focuses on the popular talk show Kalam Nawaem (Soft Talk or Women’s Talk) watched by millions of viewers throughout the Arab world on the leading satellite station MBC. In this lively talkshow, four women from different parts of the Middle East discuss a mix of current events, culture, politics, hair and makeup, childcare and lifestyle issues, including topics that are absolute taboos in their societies. The charming, intelligent women hosts are very much aware of the power of media and try to get discussions going and loosen up fixed conservative opinions. Sensitive issues such as terrorism, masturbation and homosexuality are discussed from different angles, but the show steers clear of politics. The Dutch director Bregtje van der Haak goes from Cairo, where the show is recorded, to Beirut, Dubai, Riyadh, and then back to Cairo, not only to capture the different backgrounds of the four hosts, but also to illustrate the impact of the show, which has a viewership of millions and sells among the most expensive commercial slots in the Arab world. In the meantime, we witness discussions between male and female viewers during the broadcasts all over the Arab world, images that manage to capture both the power of the talk show Kalam Nawaem and of the modernizing effect of transnational satellite television.