Doha Film Institute's Qumra Event Wraps
Courtesy DFI

The Doha Film Institute’s innovative Qumra workshop wrapped its second edition March 9 reaffirming its role as formidable facilitator for new voices in Arab cinema and beyond thanks to a format that’s getting great word of mouth, has attracted a larger North American presence this year, and looks set to build on its success going forward.

Funa Maduka, global content buyer for Netflix; Matthew Takata head of the Sundance Institute’s international feature film program; Cara Mertes, who runs the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms; and Oscar-winning British producer David Parfitt (“Shakespeare in Love”) were among the roughly one hundred invited industryites attending the March 3-9 workshop with festival elements held this year in Doha’s inspiring I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art and the nearby funky Souq Wakif.

Toronto fest topper Cameron Bailey was among returning execs. Qumra drew increased attention this year from top-tier fests with reps from Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Locarno, Rotterdam, and Sarajevo also making the trek to the carefully curated six-day succession of pre-scheduled one-on-ones, script consultations, pitching and feedback sessions, and rough-cut screenings. They revolved around 33 DFI-backed projects from first and second time directors, some of whom from outside the region – plus screenings, master classes, and an impressive roster of masters/mentors comprising James Schamus and Joshua Oppenheimer (pictured at the closing party), revered Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov, Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Naomi Kawase from Japan.

“The masters and the industry big shots are all necessary for us to fulfill a mission,” said Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman (“Divine Intervention”) who is the DFI’s artistic advisor and Qumra’s initiator. “But this is about the young directors who come here; it’s about grass roots cinema, about creating an ambiance in which they can grow.”

“Elia has had this  extraordinary opportunity to reconceptualise what it can mean to have the Middle East radiate outwards toward world cinema in a way that I think is pretty unique,” said Schamus who, like his fellow masters, was recruited to provide feedback on projects besides holding an onstage conversation with former New York Film Festival artistic director Richard Pena.

Features in advanced production stages at Qumra included French-Moroccan director Uda Benyamina’s “Bastard,” about a young woman who deals drugs in the Les Pyramides ghetto outside Paris; Spanish-born French director Oliver Laxe’s experimental Western “The Mimosas,” set in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains; Egyptian director Sherif El Bendary’s “Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim,” about a young man who believes his late girlfriend’s soul has been reincarnated in a goat; and Nepalese director Deepak Rauniyar’s sophomore film “White Sun,” about life in a mountain village in the wake of Nepal’s decade-long civil war. Rauniyar’s first film “Highway” bowed at Berlin in 2012 and was the first film from Nepal to screen at a major fest.

Features in development comprised Qatari director Mohammed Al Ibrahim’s “Bull Shark,” about an investment banker who gets caught up in an embezzlement scheme involving the region’s most prominent Islamic bank; Qatari/American artist-filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria’s “Evil Eye,” a North African take on the “teen witch” film genre; and Lebanese-Spanish director Laila Hotait Salas’ drama “Stolen Skies,” in which a bomb explosion in present-day Cairo prompts suppressed memories to resurface in three generations of related women.

Almost half the projects at Qumra this year were by Qatar-based helmers, with a dozen coming from the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, and six from the rest of the world.

The smartly structured intimate event wrapped with a desert camp shindig complete with camels, a falconer and a ripping electro folk rock concert by Lebanese singer, songwriter and actress Yasmine Hamdan.

The Arabic word “qumra” is believed to be the origin of the word “camera.” It was used by Arab scientist, astronomer and mathematician Alhazen, whose work in optics laid out the principles of the camera obscura.

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