Al Jazeera Documentary Festival

A-Jazeera is a great TV network. It has issues with some of the Middle East but overall its breath of coverage puts the BBC in the shade last week they hosted their 6th documentary festival and caught a variety of films. Some short, some long. Some heartfelt and moving. Others lighter or downright embarrassing. I think I caught nine in total and took 5 Qataris from work on Sunday to see concerning globalisation and the role of cultural awareness within business.

Six documentaries stood out ranging from North Korea defectors, the spread of Mexican lives, economic migrants in South Korea, Somali pirates and trying to save the bears of Borneo. I’ll give a quick rundown.

1. The Mexican documentary followed three lives; a lucha libre (wrestler), an aspiring dancer and an orange juice maker. All were seeking to better their lives. While all were doing what they enjoyed, a comment from the orange juice maker struck home. When on his Sunday market stall, squeezing the juice from the oranges and selling the fresh juice to customers, he was asked why he did this job. His reply was; ‘the most important thing was the conversations with new people everyday. That’s what builds to spiritually.

2. The Borneo documentary followed the dreams of a Chinese man to save the smallest bear in the world, the Malayan Sun Bear. Like small pandas they were very cute to watch roll around and the orangutans hanging around outside playing made it more amusing. The real star was the Chinese guy whose passion outweighed all the obstacles put in front of him.

3. The Korean Dream documented the crackdown on economic migrants in South Korea this century. After a government change in policy towards the usually SE Asians working there in 2003, there were 11 suicides among the workers. They do jobs Koreans don’t want to do, known as 3D jobs (dirty, dangerous, demeaning). Suicide is the Asian method to deal with the shame of the workers and bring shame on the state. This method has effects but it would be far more effective to follow the tactics of Central American migrant workers in SW America and strike to bring home their economic importance.

After 18 years working in Korea, a Nepalese worker who spoke excellent Korean (and frankly looked Korean) was deported for starting a band to highlight the issues of migrant workers. (Its noticeably the hookers aren’t deported!). The state system lacked the far-sighted, political leadership and cultural awareness to adapt. Korea of course has an political and historical base devoid of an understanding of true multiculturalism despite its vast progress. Foreigners are forever outsiders.

4. Pirates of Somalia was filmed undercover in the fishing ports of Somalia, talking to the locals, some pirate financiers, local politicians and NGOs. The overall impression is of locals resisting the pirates, pushing them out of towns while the Western NGOs continue pushing a myopic agenda framed in the backrooms of Europe and North America. Piracy means a loss of developmental aid, further exacerbating the problems of the rest. The lack of infrastructure and real direction surrenders a country still deemed a ‘failed state’ in modern parlance, thereby ignorable and the media agenda to the pirates.

The grinding poverty is alleviated by the piracy, former fishermen whose catches have been swallowed up by Western and Eastern fleets. The same exploitation of chaos occurred in Libyan waters as Gaddifi was overthrown. Spanish fishermen in particular were found trawling as the revolution took place.

The few options left open to Somalis encouraged piracy, migration, alcoholism and drugs and a general Wild West culture. A pirate mission cost about $12,000 and was financed by local venture capitalists. Internal Displaced People (IDPs) amounted to more than 1.5m. The men were often lost to this environment leaving the women to bring up the kids within a social vacuum.

5. The two North Korean documentaries took on different paths and conclusions. One concerned a Korean, now living in Canada trying to find his brother living in North Korea after the letters dried up. What was interesting for me was the typical Canadianising of the Koreans. While the seeker spoke Korean fluently, his son who filmed the trip struggled with the language and they needed a translator for him. By the time of the trip, the North Korean brother had died but he got to meet his nephews and nieces and pray to his brother’s ashes. It was moving and sad.

6. The last documentary I’ll comment on involved the smuggling of North Koreans out of the Chinese border towns next to North Korea. Most crossed China to Thailand through Laos and then applied for asylum to South Korea. But the hazardous journey involved fast, deliberate movements, safe houses, trekking through the Laotian forest to the Thai border. While the North Korean women generally kept their chin’s up, the filmmaker rightly had suspicions about the various smugglers, often South Korean involved. Motivations were vague and revolved around money, sometimes leading to threats and one woman being sold off as a wife.

The ending in this undercover film was happy with the women reaching South Korea but one does wonder whether there are the same smiles when the cameras are not there. I also wonder if the film highlighted not just the journey but far too much detail of the people, places and routes involved.

I watched other films on the Greeks in the Euro hosted by Michael Portillo, an Indonesian man’s return to his family after his release from prison, globalisation, a BBC documentary on London’s complicity with the Mubarak regime and a pretentious group of Lebanonese artist musing over their country,


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