Paris-based filmmaker Hala Alabdalla was in the middle of making her documentary, As If We Were Catching A Cobra, about cartoonists and caricature artists in Syria and Egypt, when revolution swept the region.
Unable to return to Syria for follow-up interviews with subjects including caricature artist Ali Farzat and writer Samar Yazbek, who were later persecuted by the Syrian authorities, and finding a different world when she returns to Egypt, Hala incorporated the revolution and its repercussions into her film. Another subject, veteran Cairo-based artist Mohieddin Al Labbad, passed away during the making of the film, which includes tributes to him by his young protégés.
Cartoons published in newspapers, magazines and books are an important outlet to explore social and political realities in the Arab world, and while they can sometimes express more than words, they are still subject to the watchful eye of the censor. Hala’s film examines issues such as freedom of speech, repression and the role of journalism in Arab society.
The film is screening at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in the Documentary Feature Competition. Hala previously directed the documentaries I Am The One Who Brings Flowers To Her Grave (2006), which won prizes at several festivals including Venice, and Hey! Don’t Forget The Cumin (2008).
Would you say this film is more ambitious than your previous films?
My previous two films were made without any real finance. Because this film is not purely personal, and because I had to travel around the Arab world to meet people, I realised I needed financing and approached all the funds. We have funding from Sanad [ADFF’s support fund], Fonds Sud and AFAC [Arab Fund for Arts and Culture]. What impressed me about these funds is that there are no conditions about exclusivity or distribution - so I felt this was a good compromise between making a film without any financing and having a financier but still being free and controlling my film.
What’s the budget of the film?
It still hasn’t been completely finalised. I normally only shoot for a short period so the budget is not spent on shooting. For this movie I had four days in Egypt, three days in Syria and a few sequences shot at home, so this is maybe Euros 4,000. But the bulk of the budget is spent on post-production, as I always spend a long time editing, so this is where the money goes.
When did your sales company Wide Management board the film?
They saw the film before anyone else and were aware that it’s a not a commercial movie but wanted to embark on this adventure. It’s the first time I’ve worked with a sales agent and I find it difficult to look at my film as a commercial object and not as my child. But there’s a very good understanding between us.
What is the funding situation currently like for Arab documentaries?
It’s important to have documentaries in the Arab world, firstly because it’s a creative work, and also from the point of view of finding the right audience and festivals for documentary films. This region really needs documentaries because they are like arms that the people can take up. They also raise awareness - people need to understand the circumstances they live in and documentaries help people to express themselves.
But it’s important that we insist on freedom, not just in content, but also in the form. I like to mix fiction and documentary so my films are not like classical documentaries, which normally look like journalist reportage. After everything I’ve learned, I believe in breaking the rules. And that reflects our experience in this region - you want to free yourself from everything you’ve learnt and discover something new.
Will people in Syria and Egypt have a chance to see this film?
Syria is now very difficult of course, but I’m trying my best in Egypt so that the film can be seen very soon.
Is the Abu Dhabi Film Festival a good platform for launching documentaries?
Yes because the audience is very mixed - there are people from all over the world here, not only locals. There are also many journalists and industry professionals here. We had our world premiere in Toronto, and while we had a strong audience response, it’s a huge festival. When you have both fiction and documentary in a large festival, it’s easy for the documentaries to get lost.