It’s the season when film is on many lips. From BAFTAs to Oscars, the cinema industry awards garners bumper media attention at the turn of the year. Among the contenders for foreign language films in 2019 are several from the Middle East and North Africa region, with Lebanon-produced Capernaum – the story of a streetwise 12-year-old who sues his parents for neglect – the most tipped for success.
While Capernaum may not be appearing in the SAT-7 TV schedules, films are an important and popular part of SAT-7 programming. Drama, whether in soaps or feature films, is loved throughout the MENA. So films that are in tune with SAT-7’s Christian ethos help to create a balanced programme of education, inspiration and entertainment for a wide audience.
A 2018 viewer survey showed that films were among the most watched programmes on SAT-7 ARABIC, while 80 per cent of the network’s Persian-language viewers rated SAT-7 highly because of the variety of programmes – talk shows, live programmes and films – and wanted to see more movies.
With production companies typically spending $25 to $100 million on a major feature film – and hoping to recoup that through cinema distribution, TV and online licensing, it simply isn’t practical for SAT-7 to make its own films. The network’s total annual budget amounts to less than the lowest end of this!
So to meet the audience appetite for films, SAT-7 seeks to buy the rights to show good quality Christian or moral films whenever it can obtain them at affordable rates.
Seeking inspirational films
Mario Nicolau is SAT-7’s Acquisitions Officer. His role is to research, review, and secure broadcast rights of faith-inspiring movies, documentaries and animation to engage our different language audiences across the SAT-7 channel network.
He says, “We typically seek Christian-produced movies and drama series with excellent production values and based on inspirational stories with faith-related themes.”
These vary from contemporary situations that raise spiritual and ethical issues to films that tell the stories of past heroes of the faith and Bible-related stories. Different Drummers, for example, relates the true story of an 11-year-old with Attention Deficit Disorder who hopes God will realise the dream of his friend, who has muscular dystrophy, to run again. Instead, they learn new truths about suffering and God’s presence in our lives.
Films like Romero, Bonhoeffer, and God’s Outlaw introduce viewers to the courageous witness of historic and 20th century Christians: an El Salvador archbishop who protested against military violence; a church leader who resisted the Nazis; and 16th century Bible translator and reformer, William Tyndale.
Although many of these Christian films are dubbed or subtitled, SAT-7 also seeks to air films made in the region when possible. The Saviour, for example, is a dramatic reconstruction of the life of Christ filmed entirely in Arabic with a Palestinian and Israeli cast. SAT-7 has screened this on its Arabic, Turkish and Persian language channels.
Of Gods and Men is an award-winning film in French and Arabic, telling the true story of a group of Trappist monks living in a quiet corner of Algeria. As the country plunged into war in the 1990s, the monks had to decide whether to continue living and serving among the area’s impoverished residents or flee encroaching fundamentalist terrorists.
Mario Nicolau says that mainstream productions enable SAT-7 to attract a broader audience, but the network is often unable to secure affordable licence fees, unlike commercial channels which have much bigger budgets.
Hope and dignity
Two Arabic language features SAT-7 was extremely pleased to secure last year were Lemon Tree and 12 Angry Lebanese.
“Set in the West Bank, Lemon Tree is an excellent film nominated for several awards,” Nicolau explains. “The film portrays strong female characters on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who respect each other and symbolise the hope of more peaceful relations.”
12 Angry Lebanese, meanwhile, is an award-winning documentary filmed in Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison – the location, incidentally, where the currently nominated Capernaum film begins. The documentary chronicles the efforts of Zeina Dacccache’s ambitious drama therapy project to stage an adaptation of the 1957 Hollywood film 12 Angry Men.
Nicolau says, “The film portrays the restoration of human dignity through inmates experiencing trust from others and self-forgiveness. What facilitates this transformation is their engagement of acting out a story about an innocent young man on trial for murder with a world-weary jury determined to find him guilty. For me, it effectively echoes Christian teaching that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Nevertheless, there is hope for everyone who wants to change and experience freedom.”
Occasionally, SAT-7 is also able to secure quality Hollywood films that can be subtitled for our Middle East audiences. “We were very fortunate to have acquired two Sony Pictures Entertainments – Fly Away Home starring Anna Paquin and Jeff Daniels, and Gifted Hands starring Cuba Gooding Jr – plus a TV series Joan of Arcadia; productions which are usually well outside what we can afford to pay,” Nicolau says.
“These are more humanitarian in style but with very life-affirming family values and more nuanced faith messages,” Nicolau explains.
Although it won’t stretch to the budgets of international films, SAT-7 itself is looking to develop more inhouse drama programmes as a way of engaging viewers with faith and moral issues. Several talented directors who make films for the channel have already produced films that have been aired on SAT-7.
These include Asham, six interwoven stories of hope and aspiration in 2011 Cairo by New Needle and Thread director Maggie Morgan, and Closure, a film about the experiences of the Iranian underground church by Joseph Hovsepian, producer of various talk shows on SAT-7 PARS. And The Way Back Home, the first short film produced by SAT-7 TÜRK in 2018, collected five awards at a Christian film festival in Virginia, USA.
Whether acquired or home-grown, SAT-7 is doing all it can to satisfy the thirst for faith-affirming films.
You will have an opportunity to hear from and meet Egyptian director, Maggie Morgan, at SAT-7’s Envision on the Road event in Exeter on 16 March 2019. Book your place here
Closure is available as part of our free Big Watch DVD pack. This includes discussion questions and is designed for you to use with a group of friends to introduce them to the ministry of SAT-7. Order yours here