An Experience with Documentary Films

Mass media, in general, is usually defined as informing people and informing about the people. As for the first part, mass media means to inform and enlighten the individual and it’s a fact that the Arab individual is usually given part of the information while other parts are kept hidden. But with the spread of private Arabic channels, news became more transparent.The other part of the definition is informing about the people. This part is closely related to documentaries where we find the Arab mass media falling short in presenting the nation’s social, cultural, religious and environmental issues as that media failed to record or document the issues of the Arab individual and society.

Mass media became void of its content and strayed away from its line of informing, educating and documenting only to present entertainment, dancing and singing.
A lot of Arabic channels have no thought or purposeful content but, on the contrary, promote alien ideas and their production is a devastating element to the morals and values of the nation.
Should we look closely at the Arabic drama and narrative films, we’d see clearly that they failed to tackle the nation’s issues or record its history and in addition to that they provoke contentious and sensitive issues in a negative and non educational manner which badly affects the youth For instance, in many social dramas we see that the ill mannered and obnoxious student enjoys a strong and influential character which drives a lot of teenagers to mimic and imitate him. On the other hand we see the clever and hard working student spineless, helpless and a target for bullying and mockery, which pushes a lot of young people away from hard work and success so as not to end up like that clever student. Since all that is acting, a clever student should be a model for hard work and strength with an attractive personality in order to deliver a positive and purposeful educational message.

What is a documentary film?
A documentary is a film that records facts and realities, authenticating the events from a true-to-life perspective, about an issue, a person or a place. A documentary film depends on scientific research stating the importance of the subject, the reason for choosing it and a historical background in addition to the aims of the film.

The types of documentary films cover all aspects of life and tackle all the political, economic, social, religious, environmental and cultural issues of the society.
Documentary films are considered the real face of media and the ultimate goal of production. A lot of documentary films are also considered academic and scientific references as many of them are shown to students in western universities as references in sociology, anthropology and biology among many other fields of science.

Most Arabic channels overlook producing documentary films while many questionnaires about TV programs, as I found out through my personal experience in the field, reveal that viewers strongly tend to watch such films, in a variety of fields, rather than watching long boring series, vulgar comedy plays or commercial movies.

The scarcity in Arabic documentary films and avoiding producing them have a couple of reasons. First: A financial reason due to the evaluation of documentaries by such films. There’s a preset rule to evaluate documentaries, even before watching them, according to their length not to their content or artistic value. That equation makes a documentary film lose in the Arabic market where evaluation depends on quantity not quality.

Second: The Arabic drama managed to deal with that rule. There are drama series of 30 episodes and there are many TV channels that suffer from lack of production. Thus such production took the commercial side by prolonging the scenes and exaggerations in the scripts although such scripts can be produced in 7 or 10 episodes but they eventually reach the limit of 30 episodes so as to achieve the maximum profits possible. As a result such series lose any entertainment spirit and lack the excitement in their events. That commercial equation led to the inferiority of the production standards in spite of the increase in profits.

There should be new rules for evaluating productions. Such rules should give each production its proper evaluation according to its standard, the efforts exerted in the film and the nature of the film itself . Photography, music, scenes, editing, effects and narration should all be taken into consideration when evaluating such a film. That step, if taken, will sure raise the standard of producing documentary and narrative films alike.

Another factor in evaluating Arabic documentaries is that western documentary films are marketed by private distribution companies. Those companies use dubbing and voice over techniques in a hasty and inaccurate manner to reproduce such good films and resell them to Arabic channels at low prices: 500 to 750 US dollars. Hence the question: If good quality western documentaries are sold for such low prices, why bother producing Arabic ones at costs far beyond such amounts of money?!

The Arabic market is neglected, and not addressed, by the western producers. While western TV channels pay huge amounts of money to buy and acquire outstanding documentary films, those films are sold to the Arabic channels after decades of producing them. Such films, in spite of their good quality, become old and obsolete. Furthermore those films are meant for the western viewers and do not reflect the vision or the reality of the Arab world . As a result depending on them means that the Arabic documentary production would perish once and for all.

Strangely enough I managed to penetrate the western market by producing some films that reflect the Arabic culture from an Arabic point of view. Some of those films were shown in specialized international and western channels such as the (National Geographic) and (Rai-1) and were also translated for many international channels with huge profits, tenfold of what Arabic channels would’ve paid.

The real success is to reach that market which has precise and tough standards for the quality of the films shown. Status is earned not given, for such markets do not discriminate and pay no attention except to the artistic quality of the production.

Many western channels are usually not satisfied with the standard of the Arabic productions and when they plan to produce a film in an Arab country, they send a full staff to make that film ignoring any cooperation with local directors.

What is even stranger is that I succeeded in penetrating the western market, showing my films on leading and specialized channels but at the same time failed to convince many Arabic channels to change their rules of evaluation or overcome the mafia that controls evaluating and buying films.

Another reason for the rarity of documentary films is an academic reason, for such films require a lot of reference and research on the subject of the film. The information presented also needs deep scrutiny to void any false information which jeopardizes the credibility and integrity of the film.

One more reason to avoid producing documentary films is the difficulties associated with such production and the style of directing them as both require long periods of photography, distant locations and long journeys.

The success of a documentary film depends on a lot of elements related to the directive vision of the film. Some of such elements are:

1. The choice of production constituents, like the capable and qualified photographers, technicians and production management, in addition to the technical sides like cameras and other equipments that allow the director a wide range of choice of pictures.
2. A big and flexible production budget which enables the director to be creative and distinctive away from traditional tools of production.
3. The distinguished ability to choose the subjects in order to tackle new and original topics not familiar to the audience in addition to the precise choice of locations.
4. Rich photography with accurate and imaginative choice of angles in accordance with the known basis of directing and a variety of sizes in pictures.
5. The cinematographic vision of the film with the suitable rhythm in narration, concentration of scenes and using one camera. It’s also vital to avoid unnecessary expatiation so as to create the excitement needed by the viewers.

Writing a script for a documentary film requires certain qualities among which are:

1. Accuracy in the information and data with authentic reference and avoiding unproven theories.

2. Simplicity in providing the viewers with the information as the ability to follow varies from one viewer to another. The script should be smooth, fluent and suitable for the majority of viewers.

3. One picture is better than a thousand words. So the script should be devoid of any unnecessary or unjustified details.

4. Keeping away from boring and complex scientific scripts so as to maintain the level of interest and excitement for the viewers.

5. The relative vision and perspective that deliver educational, political and social messages through the coherence of the scenes and events.


My experience with documentary films concentrates on the desert environment and documenting the Bedouin heritage before both were overwhelmed by civilization and globalization. By that I aspire to create a full visual library about deserts and their Bedouin dwellers in different parts of the world. So I visited the deserts of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Morocco. I also visited non Arab countries with types of non Arab Bedouins like the Mongols.

I’ve specialized in the most difficult type of documentary films to produce. All my films are photographed in distant desert sites, not familiar to the viewers. That requires full teams of technicians and management staff, mobility in the desert, in long and painstaking journeys full of adventures and dangers.

Such type of work requires deep patience and long waiting to capture the photographic material of the films which contain rare heritage scenes or wildlife in the desert. All that doubles the efforts, waiting for the events to unfold and to capture the wild creatures which, of course, follow no orders nor take directions by the film maker.

Work on this type of documentaries is considered the long and tough road avoided by many others as the director here has no control over many of the production elements in comparison with drama directors who can control and guide the performance of actors, lighting and the choice of sets.

I also rely on a simple equation that combines the enjoyment and excitement and is also void of uncalled for expatiation. That equation may seem simple as a rule but it is so difficult and demanding to put into practice, as it calls for precise and selective choice of scenes and a superb scenario so as to attract the viewer’s attention with what’s novel and exciting.

The biggest challenge here is to make the documentary a material appealing to the audience and make the viewers interested in the film and keen to follow it in the crowd of channels and the abundance of material they show.