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

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

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.

Doc NYC

Clock­wise from top, ‘For Sama’; ‘The Hu­man Fac­tor’ and ‘Ad­vo­cate’ are be­ing screened at the 10-day fes­ti­val

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