They say a good story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. This story has an excellent and dramatic beginning, a beginning so chaotic and fraught with danger that it almost put the middle's very existence into jeopardy, let alone the ending.
I'll introduce the characters straight away, because, as some say, a good story is first and foremost about people.
Fadi Hindash, 26, of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, is making a documentary film about hypocrisy in the Arab world so potentially explosive that he doesn't want me to publish the location where he and his family have been living. Fair enough, almost no story is worth jeopardizing a person's life. Besides showing, vividly and viscerally, that some Arabs are just as sexually and morally complex as Westerners, Hindash makes the point that in the Arab world, the feeling is that you can do whatever you want, but, you know, don't talk about it. If you don't talk about it, it doesn't exist, and if these things (debauchery, homosexuality, prostitution, rape) don't exist in your society, then you are free to judge and preach to others.
Hindash uses the film as a vehicle for coming out of the closet, a brave decision for anyone, let alone a young Muslim Arab. Much of the film, whose current working title is Not Quite the Talibans, shows Hindash agonizing over the possible fallout for him and his family from its worldwide distribution. He fears becoming another Salman Rushdie, always having to look over his shoulder. More than that, he fears for his family, which he is very close to.
But in the final analysis, he's going through with the film because he is tired of Westerners making movies about Arab hypocrisy. "It's time we as Arabs exploded some of our own myths from the inside, and besides, [Western documentary filmmakers] don't have to live with the consequences like we do," he says.
All good stories have several unexpected twists. On top of the contentious topic of Hindash's film, he's also been getting help from Erez Laufer, a top-notch Israeli documentary filmmaker and editor who has been working with him for the past year. Laufer convinced Hindash to make his film personal, to put himself and his dilemmas into the documentary, to shed his own hypocrisy before he judges others.
Working mostly behind the scenes, Laufer, over the past few years, has helped several Arab and Muslim documentary filmmakers find the best way to tell their stories, something that is very hard for them to do in their home countries. Sometimes he doesn't even see his charges face-to-face, working with them over the Internet.
When Hindash's film comes out, there will be those who will use Laufer's involvement to trash it as an Israeli plot to sully the image of the Arab world. Laufer is not that kind of man, and being the recognized professional that he is, would never associate himself with such a project.
Hindash, the young Arab filmmaker, and Laufer, the seasoned professional, were brought together by a new organization called Greenhouse - an incubator for the advancement of documentary film production and the cultivation of filmmakers in the Mediterranean region. Funded by the EU, Greenhouse is part of the Euromed Audiovisual program which brings together artists and professionals from the Europe-Mediterranean region in projects that promote dialogue and cross-cultural exchanges. The EU funds eight such projects, of which Greenhouse is the latest.
"DIPLOMACY IS broken, so we follow the artists. Conversations start in culture that can't happen in politics," says Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Mertes has supported Greenhouse since its inception more than a year ago. Her personal investment is evidenced by the fact that she read 70 applications for next year's Greenhouse seminar and sat on the pre-selection committee that chose the 10 films Greenhouse will "incubate" in its second year.
This is not a detour of solidarity for Mertes, who is busy enough with Sundance - it is a professional commitment by the head of the world's most prestigious documentary and independent films advocate. Sundance's involvement is a major asset for Greenhouse and its aspiring filmmakers, because, besides material and organizational support, it signals to the documentary film world that Greenhouse is serious and is supported by the biggest names in the business.
Mertes spoke to The Jerusalem Post during Greenhouse's first end-of-seminar conference last week in Istanbul, where the seven film projects chosen last year and mentored to fruition were presented to the industry's leading commissioning editors and producers for possible acquisition and co-production.
The budding talent, which comes from countries including Algeria, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey, is mentored by internationally known professionals.
There are currently some 250 documentary film festivals held annually worldwide, which creates a growing opportunity for a non-governmental project like Greenhouse to foster cross-cultural dialogue. And although much of the world seems more interested in fiction film and banal TV entertainment programs, there is a burgeoning and very active documentary film world, which by its very nature is made up of curious, determined people who travel widely, share information and stay in touch. It spans most countries and is characterized by co-productions and festivals.
Money is extremely tight, and standards are very high. For a documentary to be produced, pitched and successfully sold, screened and broadcast, it has to be very good. Europe has a rich history of documentary film, and the infrastructure exists in terms of production companies, art cinemas and public broadcasters who are willing supporters of the process. There is also a principle of journalistic-documentary fervor and freedom.
Not so in the Middle East, where film infrastructure and journalistic freedom are curtailed, and here is where Greenhouse hopes to make a difference. The commissioning editors, broadcasters and producers who took part in the pitching sessions are all on board when it comes to the ethos of the project. And, just as importantly, they know they're going to get some good stories.
THE PROJECT almost died at its inception. When Greenhouse was being formed last year, the idea was to have equal, quality production partners from Israel, the PA territories, Turkey, Tunisia and a mixture of Europeans. From Israel, David Fisher, director of the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television (NIF), was chosen, and from the Palestinian side, Adam Zuabi, director of the Ramallah Documentary Film Institute. At the launch meeting for Greenhouse held in Berlin in February 2006, some leading Palestinian film industry people, associated with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, expressed unhappiness at the choice of Zuabi, as the Ramallah Institute is registered in Jerusalem as an NGO, and they accused him of being too closely associated with the Israelis.
In its letter sent to the Europaid Office of Cooperation, PACBI stated that "the Ramallah Film Institute is only an Israeli-registered institution in Jerusalem and is not registered in the Palestinian Authority as is noted in the Euromed proposal. Aside from meaning that it is therefore not eligible for funds allocated to the Palestinian territories, it is also misleading on the part of both the Ramallah Film Institute and Euromed."
Ahmet Boyacioglu, head of the Ankara Cinema Association, who is a Greenhouse partner and was at the meeting, describes what happened next: "Suddenly, the Palestinians started talking about the occupation. The Israelis are occupying us, and we won't work with them, they said. It became very political and very tense, and there was no need for it because this was not an Israeli government/Palestinian Authority thing. The Palestinians said they were going to leave; they said they would never work with the Israelis. Then the Turks threatened to pull out. It seems the Palestinians were lobbying them."
Following the launch meeting, a flood of protest letters and e-mails made the rounds calling on all Palestinians to boycott the initiative, and that if the Palestinians weren't in it, then the whole project should be canceled. The Turkish Documentary Film Association bailed, saying it could not enter into a project with Israelis but without Palestinians.
So only the Israelis and the Europeans were on board, and suddenly the idea started looking less and less like the inclusive Mediterranean forum for dialogue it was supposed to be.
The key was the Turks: If there were no Turkish involvement, Greenhouse would die. Boyacioglu wouldn't let the opportunity pass and stepped into the void, offering to be the Turkish partner.
"I told [the Turks and Palestinians] that we are talking about film and that an EU audit had cleared this project after careful scrutiny. I said that Turkey was not part of the EU and that the Euromed Audiovisual program was the only chance for young Turkish filmmakers to get funding and work from the Europeans. I said it was stupid for us to let this not happen. I got really disgusting e-mails from the Turks after they heard I was stepping in in their place. The only reply I gave to those e-mails was that the Euromed Audiovisual program could greatly benefit Turkish filmmaking and I was not giving that up," he says, adding that he felt he had an ethical obligation to all of his contacts in Israel to see the project through.
Israeli partner David Fisher says that from the start Greenhouse did not have the pretension to think it could solve the problems in the Middle East, and that NIF, which is partly funded by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Science, was not formally involved in the project, meaning there was no formal Israeli government involvement. Fisher is an equal partner in Greenhouse together with Turkish, Dutch and Spanish producers.
Greenhouse received funding for three years from the EU and has just completed its first year's graduating class. At this stage it is run largely by Israelis, who provide logistical and technical support.
"It's not surprising that the Israelis are leading it right now," says Sundance's Mertes. "Someone has to lead. Israel's film infrastructure is more advanced than that of its neighbors. Eventually they will have to devolve their involvement because Greenhouse needs to attract participants from places like Lebanon and Syria, who may feel uncomfortable joining at this stage with so much Israeli involvement. Fisher will have to make sure he trains and fosters leaders in other countries who can do some of the administration work in the future. Greenhouse may also have to, in the future, widen its administration pool and structure."
WHILE FADI'S story dovetails with that of Greenhouse, his is not the only project that needed close incubation. A film about the complex ethnic identities of Turkish families has all but ground to a halt because one of the subjects, an Armenian woman married to a Turkish man, decided to pull out, fearing for her family's safety following the recent resurgence of the Armenian genocide recognition campaign and the progress in the US Congress of a bill intended to recognize it as a genocide.
Another film about Kurdish refugees in an Istanbul neighborhood is in doubt because the director, an Israeli of Kurdish ancestry, is finding it hard to secure a Turkish producer.
Some applications initially identified by Greenhouse as potential candidates didn't make it to the seminar stage. Sigal Yehuda, a senior producer for Greenhouse, says an application was received from Lebanon and that Greenhouse was interested in bringing it to the seminar, but the filmmaker decided not to proceed out of personal security considerations. Yehuda said she personally spoke with the filmmaker, as well as others from the Arab world.
In the meantime, 10 new films have been chosen for the second session and work should begin on them shortly.
On the macro level, the hope is that Middle Eastern filmmakers incubated by Greenhouse become successful and prove role models to their countrymen and women. That's good for Greenhouse, too, as its pool of talent expands, as does the number of good stories and films it can bring to the international market. It hopes it will itself expand its connections, become more inclusive and more of a recognized brand in the documentary world, a brand associated with a good cause.
At the end of the first year, Greenhouse's success can be measured by the numbers. Around, by Palestinian filmmakers Mohanad Yakoby and Sami Said, is the first Greenhouse project that was sold, even before it got to the seminar stage in Istanbul. The film, chronicling the journey of young Palestinians through 500 checkpoints spread across the West Bank in search of an anchovy pizza, was purchased by Al Jazeera TV. British Channel 4 has also expressed an interest in the longer version of the project.
Three other films out of the seven that were incubated have been snatched up by European broadcasters. Hindash's Not Quite the Talibans is in talks with Fortissimo Films on a sales deal. Based in Holland, Fortissimo is one the world's leading international film production and distribution companies.
The Turkish On the Way to School won $5,000 from Israel's Channel 8 for best all round pitch at the seminar, and the prize money was matched by Sundance. Mertes says she is convinced the film's directors will make an appearance at next year's Cannes Film Festival with a future film. Channel 8 is planning to purchase White Hallway, a story about a Palestinian girl with leukemia, directed by a Palestinian woman and produced by an Israeli.
Commissioning editors have shown interest in all four other films once they are further developed. Greenhouse has also signed a deal with the Istanbul International Film Festival in which Greenhouse's incubated films will be featured in April. In addition, a deal is being worked out with next year's Sarajevo film festival.
With the hundreds of festivals taking place worldwide annually, the documentary film industry presents an opportunity for those interested in fostering cross-cultural dialogue to use film as a vehicle. Israelis are in a good position to take advantage of this.
"Israelis are heavily involved in documentary films; we're in the starting five so to speak. We're making movies about the 'situation,' the Holocaust, and lots of personal stories," Fisher says, adding that a documentary that wins an award overseas is hardly given much notice in Israel, "but it means a lot in the documentary world, it means that people in the industry saw the film and supported it, they voted for it and, in essence they received a message coming from Israel. Israelis in the documentary world are ambassadors of our culture who interact with people all over the world."
The hope is that once filmmakers from other Arab countries start participating in Greenhouse, film professionals from those countries will come on board too, as partners, administrators and mentors.
The happy ending to this story, while possible, is by no means assured. Greenhouse's budget is 1.9 million euros for a period of three years, of which 1.5 million euros is provided by the EU. In its second year, Greenhouse will have to raise the remaining 400,000 euros on its own so that it can operate in the third year. On a structural level, Greenhouse will have to prove that it is a greenhouse for itself, that it has managed to create a sustainable program for filmmakers and, more than that, it aids in bridging the national and cultural differences in this troubled region.
Sundance's Mertes has banked on it, saying she believes Greenhouse will be around for many years to come.
Greenhouse: How it works
Greenhouse takes several documentary filmmakers and incubates their projects over one year. In essence it is a support system for the participating filmmakers and their projects, including three seminars and 24/7 tutoring support through e-mails provided by the personal mentors.
The structured program provides the participants with all professional needs for developing their basic concept into a feature-length documentary: creating a full film package for marketing; establishing networking possibilities; making a trailer which will be edited during the seminars; and participating in a pitching session in the presence of leading forces in the European and Mediterranean cinema industries.
A custom-made personal program is specially designed for each project, emphasizing the importance of dialogue with oneself and with one's peers to encourage the exploration of innovative non-fiction storytelling techniques and promote the exhibition of feature-length documentaries to international audiences.
The benefit of attending three seminars a year is that it enables Greenhouse's team to adapt each seminar to the needs of each project, and the followup e-mail support makes sure that each project has a full film package by the end of the year.
The program includes frontal lectures, case studies, master classes, personal tutorials, networking, group feedback sessions, meetings with special advisers, trailer editing and a pitching forum.
The key to Greenhouse is the work of mentors, professionals who take a film project and see it through to the end in all its aspects. Mentors are paid - not much, but the money is not the issue. For them, it is an opportunity to develop young filmmakers and engage in a cultural project of significance.
This year's Greenhouse mentors included Erez Laufer, an award-winning Israeli filmmaker and editor who has worked on projects all over the world; John Appel, a veteran Dutch documentary filmmaker; Nenad Puhovski, director of the largest and most influential independent documentary film production program in Croatia; and Serge Gordey, who has won accolades on films contributing to dialogue between citizens of ex-Yugoslav countries.
The filmmakers were coached by two of the leading documentary film producers in Europe, Phillippe Van Meerbeeck and Paul Pauwels, about pitching to commissioning editors, producers, broadcasters and film fund directors.
Pitching sessions are used in the film world as a presentation forum for the buying and selling of movies. Essentially, filmmakers, commissioning editors and broadcasters converge on film festivals or similar gatherings and attempt to find the best buyer and seller for their products. Traditionally, filmmakers will put together a "package" with which they will make their pitch to the commissioning editors. This can include a trailer of the film, a verbal presentation outlining the film's central themes and characters and reading material on the work.
The main importance of the trailer is that the filmmaker has something to show the potential buyers. Industry experts say buyers are much more likely to show interest in a film project if they have already seen some footage, no matter how roughly cut, to gain an understanding of the look and feel of the proposed film.
Finally, the filmmaker may also ask potential buyers for a specific amount of funding or to embark on a co-production. On the other side of the table, the commissioning editors and broadcasters shop for the most original, marketable films and try to buy them at the lowest price.
The idea is for the mentors to fine tune the film and get it ready for pitching, where the advisers take over and help the filmmakers construct the most professional pitch. During the actual pitching session, the commissioning guests got into the spirit of the Greenhouse project and also provided constructive criticism of the films and pitches.
The structure of the seminar is such that even the commissioning editors are interested in helping the project succeed, as it potentially provides them with a steady pool of good content.
The films pitched are at various stages of development. While some already have the footage they need, others had the resources only to produce a trailer. These films are harder to pitch and sell, because broadcasters prefer finished or "rough cut" projects to films they have to invest heavily in.
Despite coming to the end of the first year and graduating the seminar, Greenhouse promises not to abandon its filmmakers, and has assigned a full-time staffer to provide them with assistance for another six months.
In the meantime, the program is preparing to welcome 10 new projects into its second group.
The seven projects
By Saed Abu Hmoud
A film director originally from Bethlehem, who is not permitted to have premarital sex, sets out on a journey to confront his traditional family and to find sex in a brothel in Tel Aviv and in a porn cinema in Amman.
By Huseyin Karabey and Aharon Shem-Tov
Turkey and Israel
Two filmmakers with a Kurdish background, one from Turkey, the other from Israel, set out on a journey to discover their families' common histories, through the unfortunate fate of Kurdish children living on the streets of Istanbul.
By Rima Essa and Claudia Levin
The struggle of children in the oncology ward of a West Bank hospital and their families, who don't always manage to visit their sick kids.
Not Quite the Talibans
By Fadi Hindash
The story of a young man's frustration with the hypocrisy of his "modern Arab" generation which appears Western but is more conservative than the traditionalists - young Arabs who are lost between religious values and Western values of sexual liberation.
Will You Marry Me?
By Somnur Vardar and Berke Bas
Three mixed couples trying to live their lives in Istanbul, while their pasts, customs, families and society put their love to the test.
On the Way to School
By Orhan Eskikoy and Ozgur Dogan
One year in the life of a Turkish teacher, teaching the Turkish language to Kurdish children in a remote village. The children can't speak Turkish; the teacher can't speak Kurdish and is forced to become an exile in his own country.
Through Women's Eyes
By Nassima Guessum
Algerian women remember their youth when they joined the rebels during the Algerian war. Seeking the traces of the past and telling the personal stories of the moudjahidates (female resistance fighters), the director learns about her own roots, but mostly she brings her questions back to the condition of being a young Algerian woman today.
How to make a documentary
Sinai Abt, head of Channel 8, Israel's premier documentary channel, David Fisher, director of the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television, and Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, share their thoughts on what you need to get started in the documentary film business:
* Find a good story, a dramatic story, and then figure out the best way to tell it. Make sure you are passionate about your subject because it is going to be a long journey. Put together a good team: a producer, cameraman, editor. Choose people you are comfortable working with.
* Making documentary films is an art form, but it is also a business, so learn to present your film in the best way. Think about who you are pitching it to; they are usually people who receive a lot of pitches and are very busy. Make it clear and to the point, don't overload them with details. Try to find your own sources of financing. Co-production is expensive and should only be embarked on if absolutely necessary.
* Film something - it's possible these days with modern technology to get a camera and film footage, and it's not that expensive. Commissioning editors want to be wowed by compelling footage, so take some lessons and learn camera work, or get a good camera professional. It shows you are serious.
* Documentaries need to be directed, so don't think the story tells itself. The heart of the movie is the way the story is told, so think carefully about how you are going to bring your point of view to the subject, make it daring and personal, and leave your fingerprint on the subject.
* The good documentary film is a statement, and you need to be a person who is involved in the subject to make that statement, but you also need to be able to step outside of the story to tell it.
* You don't have to be an intellectual or an academic to make a documentary film: Remember that documentaries deal primarily with people first, then issues. Sometimes projects are abandoned, it can happen. For a director this is very hard because you are close to your subject, but understand that this is part of the business.
* Finally, there are no rules. Take risks, and watch a lot of films.
The writer was a guest of Greenhouse and observed its end-of-year seminar in Istanbul.