Arab documentaries riding the crest of the VoD wave
When we talk about documentaries from the Maghreb and the Middle East (MENA), we often come up with the conclusion that documentary films are struggling to find their place in the Arab world, whether in terms of production, broadcasting or distribution. However, some people want these documentaries to achieve success – in particular, the founders of the Minaa platform, which allows users to watch documentaries from the Arab world on demand.
The Minaa project, which means "port" in Arabic, came about after eight months of research and analysis via the organisation Creative Documentary Platform. Documentary film in the Arab world was at the heart of that research. Reem Bader, one of the founders of Minaa, explains, “We wanted to understand the challenges of documentary on the regional level. We studied the production, distribution and broadcasting of documentaries. Several key areas are in need of support – for example, development or assistance in creative writing. However, the biggest need, according to our interviewees, whether from the Arab world or not, is improving the broadcasting and distribution processes."
In the Arab world, creative documentaries are apparently available to less than three people in every 10,000. “When you ask the public about the definition of a documentary, the majority will say that it’s a film where one person speaks throughout. They’re not referring to creative documentaries, which are actually a lot more exciting!” said Reem Bader.
This observation led to the idea of the platform. But why develop this online? In the MENA region, 52% of people (at least 200 million) have access to the internet. This statistic quickly prompted a response from the founders of Minaa, who do not want to be restricted to the internet only. They want to distribute their documentaries, accompanied by interviews with directors, to television channels. Another project is to organise discussions, either virtual or face to face, between the audience and the filmmakers.
The project was officially launched in early June 2016. Nineteen documentaries are already online, and the collection is expected to double in size by the end of summer. “We choose films that are completed and have already been shown at festivals,” says Reem Bader. This has resulted in a wide range of films being available, from features to political titles and documentaries from the 1970s. A significant number of countries are represented: Kuwait, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Palestine. But this one-of-a-kind platform is not the first in this region.
Video on demand in full swing in the Arab world
In January 2016, world leader Netflix announced that it was available in almost every country in the world (excluding China, Syria and North Korea). But its presence is sometimes symbolic because, according to data collected by the site Exstreamist, which specialises in studying video-on-demand websites, there is a huge imbalance in supply from one country to another. In February 2016, they listed the number of titles available in each country. While 5,370 movies or series are available in the United States, there are five times less available in Lebanon (1,768 titles). Morocco came last, with users being able to choose from only 157 different titles. What is behind this disparity? The answer is that broadcasting rights vary in each country.
Given this reduced offering, many local video-on-demand platforms wanted to take over. Istikana, Cinemoz and Shahid, some of the most popular in the MENA region, appeared in 2011. Hulu, a pioneer in this sector, was created in 2007, while another successful platform is Icflix, founded in 2013. It provides content from Hollywood, Bollywood and even Jazwood (used by the founders to describe productions created in the Arab world). After three years, the project has proven to be very successful. Its founder, Carlos Salim Tibi, wants his company to become the Warner Brothers of the Middle East and has already funded the production of several films, some of which have won awards at festivals. He also helped to launch the first series to star a superhero in the Arab world, Dunia.
Icflix already has more than one million registered users. This figure increases by 25% every month, and according to its founder, “The biggest challenge we have faced is the varying internet connection speed from one country to another.” On average, the bandwidth available to homes in the MENA region is 6.1 megabits (Mbps) per second, which is expected to double by 2020. This rate is sufficient to stream in HD, which currently requires 5 Mbps. The required bandwidth is becoming lower and lower, and video-on-demand sites, such as Icflix, continue to study the possibilities. However, this is only an average, and the figures are much lower in some countries, such as Lebanon, which is famous for having one of the worst data transfer rates in the world.
For Icflix, the official arrival of Arabic Netflix in the region is good news. “This will allow customers to have more confidence in making payments online. The wide choice of films offered by the various platforms could counter piracy, which is a problem in these countries.” Even though the platform offers several documentaries, mainly through partnerships with the National Geographic channel or the United Nations, this is not its main content. It does not compete directly with Minaa.
Paying to watch online? A challenge in the MENA region
The team at Minaa knows that if they only offer documentaries, they will not have an easy task ahead of them. They want to allow some open and free access to films, and are well aware that in some countries it is not normal to use credit cards, which complicates online payments.
Reem Bader remains optimistic that they can rise to the challenge. “In Egypt, going to the cinema is a tradition, but this isn’t the case in most of the Arab world. Additionally, it costs money. In Jordan, for example, a cinema ticket costs around €8. If a family of five people wants to go to the cinema, they are spending €40… when they can get hold of a pirated DVD for €1… But buying a film on the internet is another story; it’s not something this region is accustomed to. We will have to constantly strike a balance between paying customers, which guarantee us a profit, and free content, which allows more people to access the service.”
Minaa is a long-term project, and Reem Bader is aware that it will take time to attract a loyal audience. “This will not happen overnight, or even in a year, but I think there may be an impact within three years if we persevere and remain consistent.”
Article produced in collaboration with Cineuropa