Edhem Fočo • Director, Al Jazeera Balkans
"A TV cut is much closer to the ordinary viewer"
by Vladan Petkovic
- We talked to Edhem Fočo, director of Sarajevo-based Al Jazeera Balkans and its festival dedicated to TV documentaries, AJB DOC, which is taking place from 20-24 September
Cineuropa: What was the main goal of establishing the AJB DOC film festival?
Edhem Fočo: Al Jazeera Balkans, since its inception, has positioned itself not only as a news channel, but also as a news channel with a strong emphasis on documentary films and documentary series. By the time we decided to launch this new festival in 2018, Al Jazeera Balkans had already broadcast more than 2,000 documentary films. We are almost certainly the leading producer and buyer of documentary films and similar content in the region where we operate. In light of that, it was somewhat natural for us to go a step further in promoting documentary films in the region through AJB DOC. That has to be the main goal: to promote the culture of watching documentaries, as we believe it is a sort of entertainment that is also very, very educational and useful in many other ways.
How do you pick your films, and how are the competition programmes defined?
Well, we receive applications for the competition category directly through our website, or through platforms such as FilmFreeway, but a substantial number of films are also submitted to us through distribution and production companies. We have three programmers, all of them heads of their respective departments in Al Jazeera’s documentary division, who review all of the films in accordance with the editorial and technical standards of the Al Jazeera network. The final selection is always made by consensus, and we believe that the three of them would never agree on a film that is even slightly below the highest standards.
What is it that you consider a TV documentary, as opposed to a "creative" one or those primarily aimed at cinema audiences, apart from the running time? How would you define your field of interest in this sense?
I cannot say that I am an expert on this, regardless of my enthusiasm for the industry. Running time is certainly a major issue for channels such as ours, where top-of-the-hour news or bulletins pretty much dictate the rest of the schedule. It is the same with all of the major news channels worldwide, and that is a huge market. For example, one of the films screened and awarded at the first edition of AJB DOC, Petr Horký's The Russian Job, was edited and cut especially for our festival. It helped the distribution of the film a great deal, so it was successfully sold to TV channels, including ours, right after the festival.
Of course, documentaries made for television are different from those made primarily for the big screen. The directorial approaches and angles are different, as well as the dynamics of the story – not always, but most of the time, for sure. As for us, we believe that even those documentaries that are made primarily for television may look great on the big screen, and in many cases, their narrative is faster and more dynamic compared to what you called “creative” documentaries. The TV cut is, in my experience, also much closer to the ordinary viewer, and this is why we find that our films have a big audience, especially when compared to other films shown in the same city and at the same venues. The topics and presentation are clear and understandable to any viewer, and that is the most important thing for us. We do not wish to be elitist in anything or in any way.
Al Jazeera Balkans is well respected in the region and has a sophisticated audience. How can a TV channel like this, and its festival, contribute to the development of the regional documentary scene, and the film scene in general?
Thank you for complimenting us, as well as our audience. We are really working hard to comply with very high professional standards, and at the same time, we never ever underestimate our audience or behave condescendingly. We humbly believe that we helped develop a different approach towards news in the region. This is visible in the way that many channels approach news segments, packages, lives and so on. I believe that we contributed to that with our presence.
Similarly, in the field of documentary films, we feel that we have helped raise the standards: many of the production companies that we work with would undoubtedly state the same thing. We are also stirring up interest for this genre, and we see some good documentaries being produced in all of the countries we operate in, even on some specialised TV channels whose content is similar to ours (when it comes to documentary films). All of this is great.
As for the festival, we felt that Sarajevo needed a big documentary film gathering, as most other cities in the region already have good ones. So this is our contribution, and we hope that AJB DOC will grow into one of the most important documentary film festivals in the region and, one day, become famous even beyond the Balkans.
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