Interview: Lucia Rikaki, programmer, Dubai International Film Festival

Interview: Lucia Rikaki, programmer, Diff
Frames for a cause

The Destination Documentary segment of Dubai International Film Festival is a no-frills, no-nonsense showcase of facts. The selection pans through the Arabian desert to the way of life of Mongolian nomads to the exploitation of factory workers in China. Rajeev Nair has the details.

Alongside The Motorcycle Diaries, Hamburg Cell and Control Room, there was a selection of productions at Dubai International Film Festival’s first edition that brought about animated post-screening discussions. These, including The Corporation and Super Size Me, reinforced the impact of well-made documentaries on the human mind.
That trend of informed discussion is poised to continue this year with Diff 2005’s Destination Documentary segment. The issues it addresses are varied: From environmental protection to employee exploitation, the current year’s selection also becomes relevant in the light of the march documentaries seem to be making over feature films at the box office the world over.
This is a seminal year, when penguins took a triumphant lead over gun-trotting heroes, aliens and the usual Hollywood potboiler ingredients. This is one year that takes forward the trend of successful documentaries kick-started by Michael Moore with his Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.
Naturally, it wasn’t an easy task for Lucia Rikaki, the programmer for Destination Documentaries to arrive at the film selection. Interacting with The Gulf Today from Thessalniki, Greece, where she screens her film at the film festival, Rikaki had to pen her thoughts on the Diff selection five times over, after snow-induced power cuts disrupted her computer connection. The Thessalniki Film Festival is on its forty-sixth year now, and Rikaki’s film, The Other, has been short-listed for the National Film Awards.
The artistic director of EcoCinema Festival, Rikaki was president of the European Producers Network and a member of the governing boards of Euro Aim, Documentary and Map TV; a member of the governing board of the Greek Film Directors and Producers Union; and cinema co-ordinator for the third World Summit on Media for Children. Rikaki is also a member of the Greek Ministry of Culture’s Advisory Board on Cinema.
Here are excerpts:

How do you look back on the response to the Destination Documentary segment at Diff 2004? What are the learnings from last year that you used to choose the documentaries for this year?
The reaction to last year’s programming was overwhelming and much better than what we had expected. What has been particularly amazing for me was the fact that I discovered the multicultural social landscape of Dubai. I was very pleased with the Q&A sessions we had and so were all the directors we had invited last year. These discussions and the response of the audience, which resulted to full houses in almost every screening, proved that Dubai has a very eager audience who appreciated the initiative of Diff and wishes to discover alternative suggestions to the material proposed each day by the television screen.
This response also encouraged our vision to offer the best daring independent documentaries from around the world and generate a vivid dialogue with the audience and filmmakers.
I believe that an art form like the documentary, which generates creative and critical dialogue, is absolutely necessary in rapidly changing environments as the one in Dubai. It offers a basis for long-term reflections on the issues of development that goes beyond the accumulation of wealth but may also suggest the notion of accumulating other values in one’s life.

Though environment is one of the bottom lines in selecting the documentaries, the selection this year, just as during Diff 2004, are largely rooted on socio-economic realities. Is there a clash of interests here?
Definitely not. I think there is a great amount of hypocrisy in claiming nature protection and at the same time supporting the war or neglecting main social causes. Green parties around the world and the ecology movements in general have realised this, and have thus included it in their agenda and their policies in order to cater for these major issues.
Inevitably, daring independent directors from around the world are responding to these issues or often generating through the themes of their films, the necessary dialogue centred on these issues. Our suggested selection reflects exactly this development. I believe that a socially aware viewer who is not satisfied by simply consuming items or accumulating wealth but also does care about other values is a person who will not harm the natural environment.
The role of an international film festival on the scale of Diff is imperative in this direction. We see all these issues, suggested by our films in our programming, as directly inter-related with the notion of a creative and thinking citizen. There is no sustainable development without sensitive citizens.

What were your criteria in choosing the current selection? Were there any titles that you had to drop because of logistical or other reasons but really wanted to bring in?
Out of the hundreds of very good documentaries produced internationally each year, of course, we had to limit our selection to just six. We do leave out many good options. Sometimes issues of availability of prints, directors and other international commitments may hinder us from being able to offer a film to the Dubai audience.
However, this is very rare for the documentary section because our choice is vast and we do not have many alternatives. I am just hoping that with the support of the Diff audience, this section may grow so that we can offer a few more good films from around the world and also include daring Arab filmmakers who suggest important films highlighting issues from their own countries.

Year 2005 is landmark for documentaries, especially, with the phenomenal box-office success of the March of the Penguins. Do you see documentaries finally moving out of the closet and standing up to the ‘big brother’ – films?
The past years have been very good for documentaries worldwide as they do finally gain their part in the international cinema landscape. Many documentaries get theatrical release and the role of film festivals worldwide has been imperative towards this development. I definitely see the documentary genre acquiring a much more important role every year as long as the distribution circuit will also take some necessary risks that I am sure will pay back.
Documentary films do deserve this development as they defend very important issues of the society and they represent our “other” demanding self — in the absolutely necessary dialogue with our selves and our societies — to demand more beauty and quality in our lives.
In fact, we did want to programme The March of the Penguins for Diff but we found that it got a theatrical release in the UAE. We welcomed this development and we just hope that Diff will act as a platform in order to generate eventual distribution contacts for the other fine films the festival is proposing in its different sections.
Personally I would be very pleased if some of our documentaries will get released in the UAE as a result of their Diff exposure and word of mouth with the audience.
I am also happy to discover that there are some independent distributors in Dubai looking into the independent film sector and enriching their catalogues with films outside the usual mainstream Hollywood catalogue. The success of last year’s Dubai festival has proved that there is a very eager audience in this country for alternative quality film programming and distributors are the natural partners who should benefit and follow up this development.

What according to you is the difficult part of being the programmer for documentaries? Do you feel the pressure to be politically correct?
The challenge for me is to be able to offer a wide variety of themes, film formats, aesthetic approaches and generate a creative dialogue as a result of our screenings. I believe that despite some particularities in each society that may impose some rules of what is and what is not allowed or socially accepted in public screenings, there are always ways of addressing important issues through alternative routes. This is the role of art and filmmakers all over the world. They have been trained to use metaphors, subtle arguments and take their points across without suggesting the first level brutality of voyeurism and image consumption, which is suggested by some electronic media.
Being a filmmaker myself I completely oppose to this way of seeing things and I strongly believe that the viewer is intelligent and thirsty for quality works of art that go into the depth of our issues. But we are all vulnerable to habits and what seem on-the-surface, effortless solutions.
My approach is that I should be aesthetically correct with the values that matter to myself as an artist and as a thinking citizen of this world. If political correctness in its initial concept falls within this approach, then fine. It is true that political correctness has also been misinterpreted in order to serve for other forms of disguised discrimination. At the end of the day I feel the choice offered by a curator in any form of festival is absolutely related to his or her own ethics more than anything else and these develop a taste which makes this programming relevant to a particular audience. Thus, new alternatives and trends can be eventually created. Film festivals have always been great platforms for that.

Do you feel Diff 2004 has triggered a new wave of interest in documentaries in the region? Is the inclusion of Under a Desert Sun (an entry from the UAE) a reflection of this trend?
I believe that Diff has played its role and contributed to this development, as indeed other events and of course the Emirates Film Competition too, which welcomes and encourages local production. It is great that UAE filmmakers have now some platforms to present their work. However, I believe they should also be open to an aesthetic dialogue and try to see how film is developed in other countries and thus be able to suggest films from the UAE that may compete in the international circuit This may take a while but it is certainly worthwhile.