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Jordan Short Film Festival – JSFF 2008
Festival de Courts métrages de Jordanie (Amman).

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EXPLAINING THE JORDAN SHORT FILM FESTIVAL 2008

Q & A with Festival Director Hazim Bitar


By Suha Ali

SUHA: WHO FOUNDED THE JORDAN SHORT FILM FESTIVAL (JSFF)?

BITAR: The Jordan Short Film Festival (JSFF) was established in 2004 by the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative and Hazim Bitar.

SUHA: WHY WAS THE JSFF FOUNDED?

BITAR: The JSFF was founded as a small educational and indie festival for the Jordanian audience to showcase films from around the world to our students who had zero exposure to cinema outside that of Hollywood and Arab TV soap operas. But more important, the JSFF started as a forum to promote films from the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative in response to systematic exclusion of our films by official entities and to provide Cooperative members and the general public and visual arts students with an eclectic selection of short films to help expand their artistic horizons and to bring the best in world cinema to those who otherwise would not have been able to afford to attend film festivals. The festival later evolved to include a competition of films from the Cooperative and from outside the Cooperative including films from institutions that once excluded us. Finally, it grew into an international and Arab film competition.

SUHA: WHY EXCLUDE COOPERATIVE FILMS IN THE ARAB FILM COMPETITION FROM TOP PRIZES WHEN THE FESTIVAL WAS ORIGINALLY MADE FOR COOPERATIVE FILMS?

BITAR: True, many Cooperative filmmakers do feel this is an unjust practice especially when they form the bulk of the volunteers and when the festival was initially made to address exclusion of their films only to be excluded from top prizes in the Arab film competition that started few years ago as a competition for Cooperative films. Also, the Cooperative produces a significant share of quality Jordanian indie short films in a market that’s small to start with. It does not make sense to have a Jordanian indie film festival that punishes Jordanian indie films just because those indie filmmakers made the festival possible with their films and spirit of volunteerism. It just does not make sense.

But as soon as we opened up the festival to non-Cooperative films, we had to resolve two conflicting issues: how do we maintain neutrality in the Arab film competition and how do we protect Cooperative films from another case of exclusion? First, we decided to participate Cooperative films in the JSFF competition but without the chance of winning any money or material prizes. Second, the juries we select are independent-minded artists and professionals with an impeccable integrity. We think we have maintained a balanced approach. So we put our trust in the independent jury and in the no-cash-for-Cooperative-films rule. And films that are solely mine, meaning without another Cooperative co-director, are excluded from even competing. I am sure Cooperative filmmakers did not object to this self-imposed restrictions.

This still made some of our Cooperative filmmakers unhappy. But their reward was the fact the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative produced their films and they have the chance to participate in many film festivals internationally.

To date, not one film by the Cooperative won any cash or monetary prizes at the JSFF. How lucky and how unlucky for us at the same time. We don’t have to worry about negative perceptions at least. But ironically, we managed to win the top prizes in every Jordanian film competition we have participated in that was not organized by us.

SUHA: WHAT’S THE BUDGET FOR THE 2008 SESSION OF THE FESTIVAL?

BITAR: For 2008, the budget for the festival is 2000 USD only. 1000 USD is contributed by the Abdulhameed Shoman Foundation for Best Arab Film, and 1000 USD is contributed by the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative for Best International Film. We used the money from an award we won at the Franco-Arab Film Festival. We were short on cash for the prizes so we gave up one of our own for other filmmakers. I think we deserve a pat on the back for being such indie film fanatics.

We may end up spending a little more on AV hardware that we will donate to the Jarash Refugee Camp and Ghour Mazra’ah in support of those communities’ future film activities. This will come from my personal money (Hazim Bitar). How about another pat on the back. It’s free.

SUHA: DID ANYONE GET PAID FOR HIS/HER EFFORT FOR 2008 FROM JSFF MANAGEMENT OR STAFF?

BITAR: No one got paid. There is no budget to pay salaries. Not the director, not members of the jury, not the organizational team. We have no problem with that. One year we have a budget, another we may not. The festival will go on. We are poor at fundraising. We need to work on that. I think in 2009, things will change. The JSFF is too vital for the survival of Jordanian indie cinema, which has thus far led the march of Jordanian cinema before the world and has claimed top awards in 2008. Many leading Jordanian filmmakers had their first films screen at the Jordan Short Film Festival such as Dalia Alkury, Aseel Mansour, Omar Saleh, Rifqi Assaf, Ammar Quttaineh, etc.

SUHA: HOW MANY FILMS WERE SUBMITTED IN 2008? WERE THERE PROBLEMS?

BITAR: Online, we have over 300 short film submissions. Physically, we have received over 200 short films. What’s problematic is that we have been receiving films over a month late based on their send dates. Some films never arrived at all, despite the fact their filmmakers insist they had sent them. We project that over 20% of the films sent never made it to Jordan this year. This is a serious problem. We will be discussing this with the Jordanian postal authority to find better ways of resolving this. If we can’t resolve it, we may have to set up a receiving address in Cyprus or the UAE and then collect the films and sort them out in Jordan.

SUHA: HOW COME THE NAME OF HAZIM BITAR SHOWS UP UNDER SO MANY ROLES IN THE FESTIVAL?

BITAR: For the same reason my name shows up in many Cooperative film credits as editor, camera man, production manager. Fact is, low-budget often means volunteering to do to many things. There are no honorary roles but that of the Honorary President. The higher the role, the more leg work involved. As a matter of fact, the director, me in this case, does the bulk of the leg work from collecting the mail, to opening and sorting envelopes to numbering them to even updating the website. There is no glory in being in management at the JSFF. This goes back to limited budget. That’s the price we have to pay for our independence. We had offers for financial support but came with terms and conditions attached impacting how we select the films and who can select them with us. We turned the offer for money down. So to keep the festival independent, some of us have to do the extra leg work. If there is a budget, we pay qualified people to do the various jobs that at the moment one or two persons are doing. But we are not unique in this regard. Many successful film festivals are a one-person show. It’s the films that matter. Nothing else.

SUHA: HOW DO YOU HANDLE DISGRUNTLED FILMMAKERS WHOSE FILMS DO NOT GET SELECTED?

BITAR: We had quite a few this year from Jordan. And the intensity of the reactions was beyond average. WAY TOO MUCH!!! We tell them even our films do not get selected regularly to the JSFF or other film festivals. Over 12 short films by the Amman Filmmakers cooperative did not make it to the JSFF this year. Only Cooperative films that were selected to international film festival qualified in 2008 for the competition. And we remind them that there are other film festivals to send their films to. And we even suggest they start their own film festivals or organize screenings to show the films. Of course this advice does not always help so they take their complaints to the world wide web. One person made dozens of comments on websites with dozens of pseudo names accusing us of all sorts of things including being CIA funded and of being Israeli agents. Life goes on.

SUHA:DOES THE WORLD NEED ANOTHER FILM FESTIVAL?

BITAR: Of course. The more the better. We, as Cooperative filmmakers, benefited from founding the Jordan Short Film Festival when our films were not given the chance to screen locally at official events (and they still don’t get screened in official cultural exchange events between Jordan and other countries). And as filmmakers, we benefited from the increase in film festivals in the Arab world and internationally. It means more people watching our films and more competitions to win. Had there not been the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, we would not have won the 000 Black Pearl Prize for Best Short Film. So yes, the more the better. And had there not been the Jordan Short Film Festival, talented filmmakers like Rami Kodeih from Lebanon and Giuseppe Schettino from Italy would not have won the 3000 Euro prizes in 2007 and many film fans would not have enjoyed their films in Jordan.

SUHA: HOW IS THE JSFF BEING PERCEIVED BY OTHERS IN THE REGION?

BITAR: We have such a small footprint and modest objectives we hardly get noticed. But on a few occasions, we were the subject of harsh reactions by a couple of individuals consulting for Arab film festivals. Some of those reactions were not professional. But as an indie outfit, we are accustomed to operating in a harsh, unfriendly environment. We have a mission and so long as it’s not illegal to make films or to show them, we will do so. If it becomes illegal or exceedingly difficult, we will relocate but continue the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative and the Jordan Short Film Festival somewhere else.

SUHA: YOU HAVE AN ONLINE FILM SUBMISSION SYSTEM THAT YOU ARE CONSIDERING SHARING WITH INDIE FESTIVALS, ANY COMMENTS?

BITAR: Yes, last year, the Spanish Agency for Cultural Cooperation funded the festival and we used this money to build an online film submission system to reduce the paperwork and the leg work. We have used it for two years in a row now and we are very happy with it. We do plan to offer it at no cost to other Arab film festivals and indie film festivals if they ask for it. We can’t provide support but if they have ASP.net expertise nearby to volunteer the installation, they should be able to benefit from this system. The solution is called Film Management Systems and it’s Beta. It supports core functions such as film submission, submission tracking, festival programming, automated email announcements, scheduling, reporting. We cut down the manual work by 50%. That means we spend half the time doing manual labor. We are making updates to it such as enabling filmmakers to upload photos and video trailers. That should be ready before 2009.

SUHA: THIS YEAR, YOU HAVE MORE ARTISTS BUT FEW FILM INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS ON THE JURY. WHY?

BITAR: This year’s jury is made up of talented artists who are top in their field in Jordan and in the Arab world. All of them are involved in audiovisual arts in one way or the other and their art have shaped the taste of Jordanian and Arab audiences over the years. Some have international renown. They are all independent artists. We have the renowned actor Mohammad Qabbani who starred in one of Jordan’s well-known feature films Oriental Tales. We have Tareq Nasser who composed the soundtracks of so many films and TV series. We have Emad Hajja whose cartoons and animations have entertained millions in the Arab world. We have Hilda Hiary whose art has adorned international galleries. And we have Aziz Abughazaleh, founder and manager of Mohtaraf Remaal, who leads one of Jordan’s most influential and popular art houses. He is a renowned sculpture too. The same for our youth jury. All prominent young Jordanians in their fields in Jordan and are destined to leave their mark on the cultural scene and some are already influencing national trends. You have Naseem Tarawneh, one of the most well-known Jordanian bloggers. Rania Haddad and Zein Azouqa, both very active on reporting cinema and the cultural scene in Jordan and in promoting young talents. And Patricia Lepetit from the Spanish Agency for Cultural Cooperation whose support for young cultural activists in Jordan further energized the local cultural scene and helped bring cultural activities and filmmaking workshops to remote areas of Jordan such as Hope Films (along with Marta Agosti).

SUHA: WHY ARE YOU HOLDING FESTIVAL PROGRAMS AT JARASH PALESTINIAN REFUGEE CAMP AND GHOUR MAZRA’AH, WHY NOT STICK TO WEST AMMAN.

BITAR: Amman is oversaturated with cultural activities. There are so many film screenings and so many this and that. Many cultural groups are competing over the same upper middle class audience. We have discovered through our Hope Films workshops in remote and disadvantaged communities that there is so much untapped creative energy. It took us by surprise. That’s our fault for underestimating the desire of residents of those communities to tell their stories. They had all the needed drive to learn new storytelling skills, and the stories that came out were sincere and original. But they were missing the indie cinema background because they did not have the chance to enjoy the best in world cinema and that reflected on their storytelling. All they had access to were TV soap operas and Hollywood movies. And those two together can stunt anyone’s cinematic progress. So it made sense to shift festival activities into areas that we will be spending more time with our Hope Films workshops and other filmmaking activities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Suha Ali is a regular contributor and translator who does pro bono work for the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative.



FILM SCHDULE/LOCATION

LOCATION A: Mohtaraf Remaal.
Directions: From Abdali, as soon as you pass the the Ministry of Finance on your right hand, take the street up into El Webdeh via Nimer el Edwan Street. Mohtaraf Remaal will be on your left facing Firas Hotel on you right. Phone: 4620259

International Film Competition Program Schedule (6pm)
Arab Film Competition Program Schedule (7:30pm)
LOCATION B: Jarash (Gaza) Palestinian Refugee Camp / UNRWA.
The screening is located at the Women’s Programs Center.

Arab Film Competition Program Schedule (2pm, 5pm)
LOCATION C: Ghour Mazra’ah / Zikra.
The screening will take place at the Ghour Haditha Park by the Dead Sea.

Arab Film Competition Program Schedule
LOCATION D: Abdulhameed Shoman Foundation & Library (TBD).
The Foundation & Library is located facing the Iraqi Embassy between the 1st and 2nd Circles.

Awards Ceremony & Closing Party


JORDAN SHORT FILM FESTIVAL 2008

AWARDS CEREMONY
To be held at the Abdulhameed Shoman Foundation & Library
November 20, 2008
This event is free and open to the public




OFFICIAL JURY AWARDS

– The Abdulhameed Shoman Award for Best Arab Short Film (1000 USD) –
Bent Maryam by Saed Salmin Almerry (2008) – UAE.

– The Petra Award for Best International Short Film (1000 USD) –
Solitude by Mehrdad Sheikhan – Animation (2008)- Iran.

– Special Mention for Best Actor – François Delaive in the short film
Abattoir (2007)- France.

– Special Mention for Best Actress – Dominique Loisos in the short
film Bonfire (2008) – Australia.

– Special Mention for Best Script – Hazim Bitar & Rifqi Assaf in the
short film The View (2008) – Jordan.

– Special Mention for Best Cinematography – Colin Bell in the short
film Leap Year (2008) – Australia.

Jury members: Hilda Hiary, Aziz Abughazaleh, Tareq Naser, Mohammad
Qabbani.

YOUNG CULTURAL ACTIVISTS JURY AWARDS

– Special Mention for Best Artistic Expression – Silba Perfidia by
César Esteban Alenda (2008)- Spain.

– Special Mention for Most Original Film – Zero Degree by Omid
Khoshnazar (2008) – Iran.

Jury members: Ziena Azouqa, Patricia Leptit, Naseem Tarawneh, Rania
Haddad.

NOTE: Films by the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative are not permitted to compete for financial or material prizes.