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Doha’s Latest Film Event Revels in Cultural Diversity

A strong mix of foreign helmers tell tales of teens, tweens and tots at Ajyal Youth Festival

Nearly four-fifths of the population of Doha, Qatar, a sparkling, futuristic city perched on the Arabian Gulf and packed with construction projects, are foreign workers. So it is fitting that economic migrants from the Philippines, Thailand, Africa and beyond, who have dug Doha’s roads, landscaped its manicured lawns and chauffeured its residents — drawn by the promise of lucrative employment bankrolled by the nation’s staggering oil riches — have also put a stamp on its film industry.

At the Doha Film Institute’s inaugural Ajyal Youth Film Festival, held Nov. 26-30, the lineup contained only one full-length feature, “A Shout From Within,” that was filmed in Doha,and its director, Jan Xavier Pacle, is a Filipino native without Qatari citizenship.

The film itself is an example of cultural cross-pollination: “Shout” takes place inside a Philippine school in Doha, and follows the stories of eight students whose parents are foreign workers and whose days are a blend of typical teen angst and uniquely Qatari struggles of displacement. Pacle, 25 and soft-spoken, is a graduate of the school himself, and enlisted three of its top current students to write the script.

“It’s a film about children, and I wouldn’t have been able to write it as effectively because I’m no longer at that stage,” he told Variety in Doha. “I would only base the stories on my memory.” The movie’s dialogue is Taglish, a common dialect that is a blend of Tagalog and English.

Funding for the film came from Philippine Doha School, because at production time — last year over the school’s Christmas break — Pacle was not eligible for grants from the Doha Film Institute. DFI has since changed its eligibility requirements, paving the way for filmmakers of any nationality to apply for backing.

Foreigners also made a deep impression on the fest’s Made in Qatar section, a selection of eight short films meant to showcase the best of the area’s homegrown talent. “My Hero,” a five-minute story about a little boy desperate to gain his father’s attention, was helmed by Parisian-born Nora Al-Subai, who came to Doha to study at the American School and then attended college at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon U.

“Tooth Fairy,” a four-minute short from director Shaikha Ali about a little boy desperate to help pay his mother’s medical bills, has dialogue exclusively in Malayalam, the language of Kerala, India. And animated short “The Hero and the Message,” commissioned by Qatar’s Al Rayyan Prods. to tell the story of Qatar’s founding through the eyes of a young brother and sister, was directed by Polish animator Pawel Borowski.

Doha Film Institute CEO Abdulaziz Al-Khater says that the diversity of Qatar’s industry is a strength, so much so that he applauded the decision to eliminate the Arab Film category that existed at prior DFI fests.

“If the bar is set only among the Arab world, are we really inspiring a new generation of filmmakers? It’s the same stuff we’ll end up with again and again,” he said. “We said, let’s level the playing field and talk about international filmmakers, because we are part of international filmmaking. We shouldn’t see ourselves as separate.”

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