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Belgium / Middle East / Africa

Sigal Yehuda • Founder and executive director, Close-Up

“As human beings and as artists, we have the freedom to resist the realities in our region by means of creative work”

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- We chatted to the founder and executive director of this international co-production programme for documentary filmmakers hailing from a diverse range of backgrounds

Sigal Yehuda • Founder and executive director, Close-Up

We talked to Sigal Yehuda, the founder and executive director of the Brussels-based international co-production programme Close-Up.

Cineuropa: Can you tell us in a few words what Close-Up consists of?
Sigal Yehuda: Close-Up is an annual, year-long training and development programme for documentary filmmakers from the Middle East and North Africa. We support filmmakers who come from diverse ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Qatar, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Positioned at the intersection of the arts, media, social change and peacebuilding, Close-Up is the only initiative of its kind in the region, creating a transformational experience for many young filmmakers. We believe in the necessity of dialogue between individual artists coming from “enemy” societies in order to build bridges, flying in the face of stereotypes and censorship.

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Films born of the Close-Up programme have gone on to screen at festivals around the world, including at Sundance, the Berlinale, IDFA, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Hot Docs and MoMA Doc Fortnight, to name but a few. Several have also received prestigious international awards and nominations.

Can you give us any details of the selected projects?
This year’s cohort consists of 24 directors and producers from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, Sudan, Turkey and Yemen. The selected projects deal with powerful and relevant topics. They include: the perspective of children in war-torn Yemen; a Palestinian Bedouin family in Jordan and their struggle to maintain their traditional life in the face of the threat of gentrification; the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a fishing village in Sri Lanka; the extinction of a special tribe in southern Iran; the consequences of the war and the brutality in Afghanistan on different communities, such as the Hazaras; the struggle of a powerful Afghan woman political activist who is now a refugee in the USA; the story of another activist who is still struggling in Afghanistan and is under serious threat; the resistance and activism of youth refugees in camps in Europe as they fight for their rights; the challenges and questions of identity of Palestinian and Israeli teenagers studying together in a special international school; women workers in a salt mine in Iran; and complex personal and political stories of relationships between filmmakers and their family in Israel.

Did you find it difficult to gather participants from Palestine or Iran?
We receive a lot of applications from Iranian filmmakers. Many directors are interested in joining a creative community of individual artists and filmmakers who work together, inspire one another and share common values. As we believe that arts and culture are great means of finding common ground, we see a large community of independent artists from Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Sudan and the entire region who are very curious to meet others like themselves from a region they love and respect – a region that has a long tradition of culture that we all feel part of and proud of.

For example, the first Storytelling Edit Lab that we are hosting in Berlin from 1-6 December, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office, is intended for ten talented emerging filmmakers from Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Libya. This lab is incredibly important to us: it is the first of its kind for Close-Up, the first time we are able to meet in person in nearly two years. It’s a means of bringing filmmakers from across the region together in the editing room (which is a very intimate process) and, with its aim of creating collaborations with European professionals, it’s a chance for diversification in the European documentary industry.

In addition to technical training, does the seminar also have any political significance?
Everything is political. Our vision is to create a diverse, multicultural, pluralist community that offers a truly free and independent mindset, not a dogmatic one. We are all artists; we should push our boundaries and ask ourselves challenging questions, like: are nation states really representing anyone in the MENA region today? I don’t think so. I believe that the common ground we all share in our community is that our nation states are no longer representing many of us. Most of us do not identify with official political state narratives. If we all want to resist the reality we are experiencing, we have to be independent and keep being free thinkers who look at the geo-political landscape from a different perspective. We, as a community that shares common values, can change our reality by creating significant and powerful documentaries that challenge official narratives, or which propose different perspectives than our politicians.

Working with talented and emerging filmmakers from our region is one of the most precious and essential ways for us to maintain our cultural awareness and ensure our future existence. We've witnessed our ability to resist prejudice and ignorance by creating powerful documentaries within our community of filmmakers, who remind us all about our common values and the strength of an inclusive society.

As human beings and as artists, we have the freedom to resist the realities in our region by means of creative work – for us specifically, through filmmaking. We have the power to change the discourse. In the end, what is left from a historical perspective is arts and culture, including our compelling films. When people look back at the creation of these challenging movies, films that Close-Up is helping to create, they will discover the strength of individual thinkers and artists who proposed different narratives and managed to transform this reflection into a form of art. That's our legacy. No one can put us in a box that is convenient for them. We resist any form of definition, as we have the freedom to define ourselves as we wish.

In that regard, I define myself as an Iranian Jew; I find common ground with my Iranian and MENA filmmaker friends based on our common culture, the common history of our ancestors, our common passion, our common values, our creativity, our resistance, and our dreams for a just society and a hopeful future for all of us in this troubled region.

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