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In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group.

EDN Member of the Month: Filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia
(Photo by Razan Ghazzawi)

Our EDN member of the month for June 2015 is Orwa Nyrabia, producer, Proaction Film, Germany / Egypt / Syria. EDN has talked to Orwa Nyrabia about his recent and current projects and his shift and journey from Syria to Germany. Orwa Nyrabia holds a degree in acting from the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus, Syria.

In 2002, together with his partner Diana El Jeiroudi, he co-founded Proaction Film, the first independent film production and distribution company in Syria focused on documentaries, and in 2008, they launched the international documentary film festival DOX BOX. Besides the film screenings the festival also offered workshops for young Syrian filmmakers.

Orwa Nyrabia’s central role in organising the Syrian filmmakers' international Call for demanding democracy for Syria and his activism during the Syrian uprising led to his arrest by Syrian authorities in August 2012. 3 weeks later he was released without charges among other things due to heavy pressure from the international film community. Today Orwa Nyrabia lives and works out of Berlin.

Among the documentary titles produced by Orwa Nyrabia are: Dolls, A Woman from Damascus (Diana El Jeiroudi, 2008), Return to Homs (Talal Derki, 2013) and Silvered Water (Ossama Mohammed & Wiam Simav Bedirxan, 2014). Orwa Nyrabia has also received a number of awards – among others The George Polk Award 2014, The HRW Courage in Filmmaking Award, and The EDN Award 2012.

EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and your work as producer in Syria?

ON: I was born into a family of political dissidents for whom film and literature held great importance, in an authoritarian country in which dissidents were detained, tortured and often killed.

There was, and still is, no film school in Syria. My family, like the vast majority of Syria's middle class, didn't have the money to send me to study abroad, so I took up filmmaking’s nearest cousin: Acting! Acting gave me the chance to explore human nature, character development, dramaturgy and myself. During and after my studies I wrote weekly for a regional newspaper, worked as 1st Assistant Director on fiction films and acted in few projects.

I believe my move into making and screening documentary film is the inevitable result of mixing such ingredients. Together with Diana El Jeiroudi and our friend Vrej Boyajian, I co-founded Proaction Film in 2002 in Damascus. It was a jump into the unknown by all rational measures at those days.

EDN: What were your motivations and objectives for setting up the DOX BOX festival and the connected workshop activities?

ON: As filmmakers ourselves, the beginning of our careers were very difficult. We had almost no one to learn from; no books, film libraries, seasoned producers, editors or even technicians. A few brief encounters with industry professionals like Tue Steen Muller (film Consultant and Director of EDN at the time), Isabel Arrate (IDFA BERTHA FUND) and Mikael Opstrup (EDN Head of Studies today and Great Producer at the time) changed our lives! The internet community, D-Word, was also a great help. Trips to festivals in Europe made us even more determined to establish the same in Syria!

Omar Amiralay, Syria’s late great documentary filmmaker, and a very important mentor to us, had been making great films since the 1970s but all of them were banned in Syria. Amiralay himself was banned for years and lived in exile in France.

DOX BOX was a fearless idea conceived by Diana in our small but optimistic office in Damascus, back in 2005. It became a reality by 2008 only because we refused to submit to our society's chronic cynicism. We wanted to make author-driven documentary films about our reality, in a country where the concept of creative/cinematic documentary was unknown.

Our approach coincided with the relative tolerance of the regime after 2000.  Bashar Assad thought that things like film, western music and upper-middle-class charitable work, could serve as useful cosmetic tools for their notorious image. So, it was possible to take advantage of that to introduce documentary cinema to our people. As part of DOX BOX, many documentary masterpieces were subtitled into Arabic for the first time and over the course of four editions (2008-2011) some of the world’s best films were screened to Syrian audiences. We largely managed to circumnavigate censorship, screening films from “other places”, like Chile, Poland, Burma…  and as our audience left the theaters, great debates ignited; debate about Syria, dictatorship, democracy, human rights and revolution!

This is still what DOX BOX e.V. does today, from Berlin, although it utilises a different set of tools. DOX BOX is now a non-profit association concerned with Syrian and Arab World filmmakers.

EDN: Is there any active filmmaking community left in Syria and how are your ties today to this community?

ON: A lot has changed since the revolution. For Syrians, who were, for decades, scared of seeing or showing their image, self-image was the first thing to be liberated by the revolution. The choice we took, documentary film, suddenly received our people’s recognition and appreciation.

In Syria today, a new generation is engaging with documentary in its various forms. While most are motivated by the urgency of war and will probably return to their lives once the conflict is over, a few will go on to represent the next generation.

So I work with many Syrians inside and outside Syria; training, advising and producing. Syrians are everywhere now - the world is ours!

EDN: Your two recent projects Return to Homs and Silvered Water, which both depict the violence of the war in Syria first hand, were made under very dangerous conditions. How do you at all manage to produce films like this and what keeps you motivated to continue?

ON: It was never a choice. It is a commitment. When your people stand up courageously and face a huge war machine, you are forced to know your place. Would you leave to a safer place and wait until things are safe again? Or are you one of your people. As filmmakers, we had something to do. We were needed, relevant and there was no other way to go.

When you feel scared, you look at tens of thousands of others singing in the face of tanks and fighter jets. When you feel sad you’ve lost a precious possession you see thousands full of hope right after they’ve lost every single possession they’ve ever had. So, it is not about courage or carelessness… it is about sharing and participation.

EDN: Could you share some more insights on the production side of both Return to Homs and Silvered Water? How did you work with co-producers and financing of the projects? Were there any TV stations/financiers who dared to step on board such dangerous and thereby risky projects?

ON: We were preparing for a new film by Omar Amiralay when he passed away in February 2011. We already had the support of AFAC (The Arab Fund for Arts & Culture) for that film. In March 2011 the Syrian Revolution erupted and life was never the same again. So, we approached AFAC with a proposition: We wanted to use the funding already allocated in a way that relates to the country’s new reality and pays respect to the pioneering documentary master. The idea was to fundraise for a slate of 4 films presenting 4 different angles to the lives of Syrians at the time. AFAC, gracefully, accepted the proposition and enabled us to invite a selective list of filmmakers to propose projects. Return to Homs was one of the outcomes of that initiative. The initiative also received the support of IDFA Bertha, IMS – International Media Support in Denmark and the British Council.

In IDFA 2011, in collaboration with IDFA Bertha Fund, we organized a development workshop for the film teams selected. It was at that stage that Hans Robert Eisenhauer, who was starting his production work after years of being an influential TV Commissioning Editor, showed interest in Return to Homs. Throughout 2012 we were shuttling between shooting in Syria and examining the footage and the dramaturgical approaches in Cairo (where we sought safer conditions away from the tension in Damascus). We had great consultants helping, including Emma Davie, Bruni Burres, Ossama Mohammed… and others.

It was only by early 2013 that industry commitments started to materialize for Return to Homs... when filming was more than 90% completed and footage had been smuggled out of Syria, along with the filmmaker, for a micro budget. Eventually, the film became a co-production with SWR/ARTE (Dr. Gudrun Hanke-El Ghomri) and a great array of broadcasters (SVT, NHK, TSR, CBC...) came on board making post production in Berlin and the involvement of a world-class editor (Anne Fabini) possible. As soon as the film was finished, IDFA, courageously, selected it as opening night film. Then Sundance selected it and it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize. We teamed up with London-based Journeyman Pictures, and the subsequent screening tour included more than 100 festivals, over 20 awards, and several broadcasters and VOD platforms! We are still taking the same kind of risk about very promising projects that have similar uncertainties… it is our responsibility.

Silvered Water, which we’ve been working on at the same time, had different conditions. It was first and foremost a creative challenge of a seasoned filmmaker. When we started working with Les Films d'Ici in Paris (Serge Lalou and Camille Laemle) on the film, supported by CNC and ARTE France (Luciano Rigolini), we had a clear view of the author’s concept but not much about what will happen and what footage we will get. We didn’t know much about the end of the film and the concept itself was very new, hence risky! All partners believed in the project and shared the risk and investment. Having a seasoned director made things a little easier … Still, getting additional partners on board needed more than that. As soon as we had a rough cut, we approached Sundance Documentary Fund and AFAC, both of whom supported the finishing of the film. This model of production operates on a very low budget and acknowledges the high level of risk, whilst allowing the filmmaker greater creative freedom… opening the horizon to new possibilities. Silvered Water premiered in Cannes’ Official Selection, to tremendous critical acclaim, and came third best film in the 2014 survey of French critics after it was released theatrically in France, Spain, Italy, Portugal...

As a result of coming from where we come from, it falls to us to take greater risks, place our trust in undusted new talents and to work with and for less money, train newcomers, bridge cultures, empower filmmakers, believe in them and their choices, invest in their career development, not only in the films in hand. That said, why should such an approach be limited to those forced into it?  

EDN: How did you find co-producers for the films and what are your experiences co-producing with different European partners?

ON: Only a handful of European producers have the courage to welcome risk, whilst understanding that the risks taken by others may be far higher than theirs. Fewer still truly avoid the sin of tourism, as Herr Herzog once called it, by refusing to be led by sensationalism and by the pervasive tendency to fetishise and exoticise, which result from Eurocentrism and a combination of estrangement and attraction to other cultures, and sometimes even from a privileged claim of saving the “other” without truly seeing them as equal peers.

There is an increasing value placed upon standardized and simplified storylines by funding and distribution bodies. This, in itself, is a contribution to the over-simplification of the narrative and of cinematic expression. This creates a diminution in dialogue that leads to the likes of ISIS, PEGIDA or UKip.

I want to say that it’s these small risks we take today that can save us from huge risks tomorrow.

EDN: Which projects are you currently working on? Will you be delivering more stories from Syria?

ON: Certainly. From Syria and soon from other places too. We are working on three projects today. One of them is Diana El Jeiroudi's next film. A project she has been making for over 6 years now. A very original, measured, and ambitious approach to the contemporary history of “us”.

Two other projects from Syria will each shed a different light on a corner of Syria's recent history that the world has not yet seen. One examining the experience of middle class women trying to make a difference at such times; a segment of Syrian people that doesn’t fit into the stereotype consumed by an uninformed international audience. The third film interrogates the experience of Syrian dissidents, filmmakers and fighters, as they try to be just, despite the fact that the injustice they were subjected to is still unaccounted for. The names of the filmmakers here cannot be published yet.  

The experience of making films accompanying such an extreme history while it happens is very challenging. The Syrian catastrophe is bad enough to awaken all humanity.  Every new project we’re working on is teaching us a lot, not only about Syria, but about human condition, human ambition, resilience and also failure. Our new films will present complex questions, no answers, no judgement… hard-hitting examination of a universal experience.

Then, I am also working on my own first film as director… this is what I would call risk!  

EDN: After your detention in Syria you had to flee the country, first to Egypt and then to Germany, where you are currently based. Can you try to describe this journey – having to leave your home and work from one day to the other, then settling in Cairo and then due to the political circumstances there move on to Berlin?

ON: After my detention, and the outstanding campaign for my freedom, we needed to set up a post production arm in a safe place. Cairo was largely safe and welcoming at the time (end of 2012), despite many problems. Shortly after our team arrived in Cairo with little luggage, I was informed that I was wanted, again, by another intelligence apparatus in Damascus, and that going home wasn’t a good idea.

It was still the rule of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The air was full of pessimism and anger and the economy was on decline. But there was no aggressive state censorship or violation of human rights. When the military rode the back of a popular protest  movement and overthrew the government, reinstalling a military dictator and re-enforcing censorship and political imprisonment. An anti-Syrian sentiment was part of the discourse of the military coup and we happened to be among the first Syrians to be denied residency and work permits. Gladly, our request to reside in Germany was welcomed and we were able of moving on despite all.

It was a difficult journey but it was much better than the journeys of some of our friends who had no other choice but to board inflatable boats to cross the Mediterranean. We succeeded in staying afloat because of the solidarity and friendship of many. Friendship is the only secret of this community!

EDN: How can you compare your experiences from being an independent producer in first Syria, then Egypt and now Germany?

ON: In terms of funding, a Syrian or an Egyptian independent producer of creative documentary has no state or public support. For Syrians it is absolutely nothing, while for Egyptians it is almost nothing! However, there are a few regional and international funds designed for this purpose.

There is a more developed film infrastructure in Egypt. The industry - film and TV - is more developed than it is in Syria. In Egypt , censorship and controls on the use of camera in the street has always been an issue but it was never as bad as in Syria. In Syria, you could be killed for carrying a camera and being “unknown” by the intelligence. However, documentary was the underdog in both countries and it is on the rise now in both, and maybe developing faster in Syria.

In Germany, we’re only beginning to learn, with considerable support from many friends and organizations. We are now members of the Deutsche Filmakademie, are learning German, and starting to meet fellow producers, filmmakers, distributors and funds. It all seems to be encouraging.

EDN: What have your ties to the international documentary community meant throughout this period of immense difficulties and transitions?

ON: During a DOX BOX Q&A in Damascus 2010, I asked D.A. Pennebaker the cheesiest question:

What is it that one needs the most to be a documentary filmmaker?

Penny responded: "It is just like you want to travel the world in a broken car. You don't have the means to get yourself a better one... All you can do is to make sure, very sure, that you have the right partner in your journey." (Smiling to the great Chris Hegedus).

I believe this is the whole story. I had Diana, and we both had an uncompromising, loving, committed and fearless tree of friends. This tree was our home when things got really difficult. This sense of solidarity, compassion and the chronic dissidence of documentary filmmakers is the reason I am free to write these words today. Without it I would have remained confined in the same inhuman underground cell I found myself in in August 2012, listening to the sounds of torture, if I could still hear anything at all. This is not just a “professional network”, it is who we are.

EDN: What lies next for you and Proaction Film?

ON: Proaction Film (now with the reassuring German "GmbH") will continue to produce films from Syria and the Arab region and it will be there to bridge gaps, to provide better support, advice and production conditions for films from the region and also enable the production of better European films about the region and its people. In short, to contribute to the making of better films, aspiring to a better mutual understanding between the two sad halves of our rotating planet, proactively!

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