SYRIAN FILMS MAKE THE CUT AT NEW YORK DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL
▶ Films shot under siege in Ghouta and Aleppo are among a strong regional showing, finds Daniel Bates
It is easy to get lost amid the 300-plus films on show at this year’s Doc NYC, the biggest documentary film festival in America. This is why the shortlist comes in handy: it highlights 15 films the organisers have tipped as contenders on the international awards circuit, and this year, there is a strong Middle Eastern contingent among them.
The 10-day festival, which runs until Friday, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Expected to attract more than 500 filmmakers and other special guests, it will screen 136 feature-length documentaries, 28 world premieres and 26 North American premieres.
Two films about Syria have made the shortlist: For Sama and The Cave. Doc NYC artistic director Thom Powers tells The National he had “no doubt” about selecting each of them, and believes either could win an Oscar. He says they offer a “remarkable insight into Syria’s war from a Syrian perspective”.
For Sama, directed by Edward Watts and Waad Al Khateab, has already won the top documentary prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and South by Southwest. It is the first feature-length work by Al Khateab, who shot hundreds of hours of footage on her phone and on borrowed cameras over five years during the uprising in Aleppo. Al Khateab, who also appears in the film, has framed it as a letter to her daughter, Sama.
The documentary tells how she falls in love with a doctor, Sama’s father, who works at eastern Aleppo’s only functioning hospital, the last to be destroyed by the Assad regime. The couple must decide whether to flee Syria for the sake of their daughter’s safety.
Syrian director Feras Fayyad’s
The Cave also explores the conflict’s catastrophic impact on healthcare. It was shot from 2016 to 2018 inside an underground hospital run by female doctors in Ghouta, near Damascus. The film scooped the People’s Choice Documentary Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Fayyad, whose previous works include the critically acclaimed Last Men in Aleppo, focuses on Dr Amani Ballor, an inspirational paediatrician who must deal with horrific conditions while defending herself against chauvinistic men who believe she should be at home doing the housework.
Powers says both For Sama and The Cave made the shortlist because of their “universal themes about resilience
in the face of unimaginable adversity”. It should prove a positive omen for the directors of both films, as for the past eight years, documentaries screened at Doc NYC have gone on to win Best Documentary Oscars.
The two films are the front runners from an especially strong showing of works from the Middle East. This is Not
a Movie profiles the veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, who has covered major conflicts in the region for the past 50 years. The British journalist and author was in Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s, where he covered the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and reported from Afghanistan during the Soviet and US invasions, meeting Osama bin Laden several times.
The Human Factor, by Israeli director Dror Moreh, who was behind the 2012 documentary The Gatekeepers, looks at the 25 years of attempted peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine by the US. Among those interviewed are former leaders of each of the involved nations: Bill Clinton from the US, Yasser Arafat from Palestine and Yitzhak Rabin from Israel. Another compelling feature is Advocate, which follows an Israeli lawyer who has defended Palestinians for half a century, including some who were in militias, even though she is labelled a traitor.
As for the international documentaries, our pick of the highlights include The Capote Tapes and Bikram: Yogi, Guru,
Predator. The latter, from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Eva Orner, is a chilling expose of yoga entrepreneur Bikram Choudhury, who has faced a slew of reports of sexual abuse from yoga teachers he trained.
The Capote Tapes closes out the festival and provides a fresh look at the American writer, using newly uncovered recordings of interviews with his friends.
American-Italian filmmaker Martin Scorsese will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for his non-fiction work, as will Michael Apted, director of the groundbreaking TV series Up.
Clockwise from top, ‘For Sama’; ‘The Human Factor’ and ‘Advocate’ are being screened at the 10-day festival