Document Human Rights Film Festival: Taking the radical road

Document Human Rights Film Festival: Taking the radical road

Still from Horse of Mud (1971) by Ateyyat El Abnoudy

This year's strand, Radical Documentaries in the Middle East: 1967 and its Afterlives, highlights the impact of female filmmakers on representations of Arab life

What makes a film radical? Does it need to be experimentally radical – a new kind of form for film – or does it need to be politically and socially radical in its content? Or, perhaps, it's both. These are the questions that Document Film Festival, Scotland's international human rights documentary film festival, will ask with this year's central strand: Radical Documentaries in the Middle East: 1967 and its Afterlives.

'The project looks at some of the events that radically changed politics in the Middle East and the ways in which representations of Arab life – both in the media and by filmmakers – have been, and arguably continue to be, shaped by them,' explains Sam Kenyon, Document's programme producer. 'We're focusing particularly on the Six Day War of 1967 and women filmmakers, such as Ateyyat El Abnoudy, who were at the vanguard of a group of artists who launched the New Arab Cinema manifesto at the Damascus festival in 1968. The manifesto called for a more realistic portrayal of Arab life in film, and a more intersectional approach to representation.'

Showcasing a rich variety of work – from contemporary narrative film, such as Palestinian filmmaker Azza El-Hassan's road-trip movie Kings and Extras (2004), to archival footage, such as a film curated by the Creative Interruptions research committee at Sheffield Hallam University – what brings the project together is that umbrella label of 'radical'.

'A radical film is one that makes a decisive break with, or poses a significant challenge to the dominant language of the medium in a way that invites the viewer to perceive a subject in a new way,' explains Kenyon. 'But, I'd definitely qualify that by saying that whether a film is radical or not depends mostly on the context it was made in, because what constitutes the dominant language of the medium very much depends on where in the world the film is being made, and under what circumstances.

Document Human Rights Film Festival: Taking the radical road

Still from The Sandwich (1975) by Ateyyat El Abnoudy
'Looking at archive work – and also thinking about archives themselves as extremely fragile, sometimes intangible and always explicitly political things – tells us a great deal about the world today, but also prompts a lot of complicated questions,' he continues. 'One of the things that strikes me the most is what they articulate about our collective memory – how we remember and how we forget. Notions of what is remembered and forgotten are particularly relevant to identities that continue to be preserved in exile and / or under occupation, such as in Palestine. But, I think they are also relevant in other contexts, and in different ways, including those closer to home when we consider what the histories of race and class relations in Britain might tell us about Grenfell, Windrush and the hostile environment.'

Working on the project, Kenyon has noticed a direct correlation between form and content. 'I think a lot of radical filmmakers are also united in their conviction that there is no real distinction between political struggle and artistic expression – that the constraints placed on both often mirror each other.' In radical filmmaking, artistic and political expression go hand-in-hand.

While explicitly political films have a reputation for being disdainfully reprimanding, Kenyon's experience working on the project has been anything but that. '[Radical films] look to stimulate an imaginative response from the viewer rather than a purely literal reading; in other words, they don't tell us what to think, but ask us to look differently.'

Document has focused on a collaborative approach to the project, working with Dr Stephanie Van De Peer, a scholar in African cinema, to help illuminate the interweaving histories of Middle Eastern politics and cinema, and Samar Ziadat, who runs dardishi, an online magazine written by Arab women, to produce a publication launching at the festival. What they've achieved is a project that will illuminate a strand of film history rarely brought out of its archives and a festival that actively works to be inclusive, empathetic, and collaborative. What could be more radical than that?

Document Human Rights Film Festival, CCA, Glasgow, Fri 30 Nov–Sun 2 Dec.

Document Film Festival

This dedicated international human rights documentary film festival uses international film to raise the profile of human rights and social issues that are not exposed in the mainstream media. Document showcases a wide range of styles from reportage to cinematic essays, investigative journalism to left-field experiments.