DOX BOX Makes Push to Boost Arab, African Documentary Filmmakers

Christopher Vourlias

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After being appointed director of DOX BOX earlier this year, the acclaimed French-Egyptian documentary filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri had a vision for how she could foster the continued evolution of a Berlin-based organization already devoted to the development of a sustainable documentary industry in the Arab world.

From the start, that meant strengthening ties between the Arab region and sub-Saharan Africa, “having spent 30 years of my life trying to connect the north of the continent to the south of it,” said El-Tahri, whose credits include the Emmy-nominated “House of Saud.” “It’s the idea of being that bridge that for me was really important.”

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El-Tahri points to the fundamental challenges facing both African and Arab documentary filmmakers, working without broad financial or institutional support in their own regions, while frequently being marginalized by funding bodies in the global north. “We’re trying to be more inclusive,” she said. “We’re trying to build these bridges for those who have been kept out of the system.”

To that end, DOX BOX has launched a range of new initiatives to complement its already successful editing residency in Berlin, which hosts documentary filmmakers at a critical stage of their editing for up to 12 weeks. People’s Stories: Past and Present is a support program for documentary projects addressing, questioning and breaking social taboos. Art & DOX is focused on bringing down the walls between different visual genres in the audiovisual industry. DOX Garage offers tailor-made consultancies or hands-on mediation for documentary projects facing a particularly thorny predicament.

The organization has also introduced Women in DOX, a long-term fellowship program designed to build capacity for Arab and African women documentary filmmakers. The fellowship will offer women from different generations, cultures and disciplines a chance to acquire and perfect the end-to-end skills of creating a documentary, from conception to completion.

“It was really about sitting back as a filmmaker and going through my own obstacles throughout my career, pinpointing what are the lacks that exist, and what are the holes that we can plug in as an institution,” said El-Tahri. “What we are trying to do is years-long, holistic, from A to Z, where people will go through every step of the system.” The six participants for the inaugural three-year program will be selected from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Sudan and Tunisia.

On Nov. 23 in Amsterdam, El-Tahri will take part in a panel entitled “Docs Development Platforms in the Arab Region,” which will bring together representatives from four leading organizations working to build a better infrastructure for documentary films from the Arab region. It’s part of a day-long program hosted by Al Jazeera Documentary and running parallel to IDFA.

The DOX BOX team is also looking ahead to the third edition of the Documentary Convention, a joint initiative with the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture that looks at challenges facing the Arab documentary scene, after a successful sophomore edition (pictured) was held in Leipzig earlier this year.

IDFA this year will feature four selections by Arab and African filmmakers in its official competition, including “Let’s Talk,” an exploration of motherhood, identity and ancestry, from Egyptian director Marianne Khoury; “The Sea Between Us,” director Marlene Edoyan’s reflection on the Lebanese civil war that’s centered on the intimate conversations between two women who lived through it; “Sunless Shadows,” filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei’s portrait of a group of adolescent girls living in an Iranian juvenile detention center; and “Europa, ‘Based on a True Story,’” Rwandan director Kivu Ruhorahoza’s docu-drama about a filmmaker whose efforts to shoot a film in London are interrupted by the hostile environment created by the U.K.’s new immigration policy.

Such films are part of what El-Tahri sees as a vibrant, burgeoning documentary scene from a part of the world that’s accustomed to seeing its stories depicted from an outside point of view. “I think it’s so exciting. It really is profoundly exciting,” said El-Tahri. The next step is finding ways to give those emerging voices a platform to be heard.

“How do you open up the system to people who have so much talent but have not managed to access the northern system?” said El-Tahri. “That’s something we can do….All it really takes is a little nudge.”

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