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Ever since the Arab Spring in 2011 sparked a wave of uprisings that fueled hopes of transformation and transition from dictatorships to democracies, Arab directors have felt compelled to depict the complex changes going on in their nations. Now, some are feeling a greater urgency to take on themes surrounding the Islamic State group and terrorism, while still tackling issues of immigration and stultifying cultural mores.

Producers in Paris and Brussels — cities still reeling from recent Muslim extremist attacks — are proving crucial in shepherding films that address pressing Arab topics, as are institutions in the Arab world, such as the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra workshop, which took place March 4-9 in Doha.

Belgium’s venerable Dardennes brothers served as co-producers for Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attia’s timely drama “Hedi,” a subtle, taboo-breaking love story largely set in Tunisian beach resorts devoid of tourists after the deadly 2015 ISIS attack on a hotel in the resort town of Sousse.

“My initial intention was to write a love story,” says Attia of “Hedi,” which scored prizes for best first work and best actor at the recent Berlin Film Fest. “But through the journey of self-discovery of this young man, we can draw a parallel with young democracy in my country.”

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Tunisia’s Dora Bouchoucha Fourati, the main producer on “Hedi,” was among a group of global industryites who attended Qumra. Projects on display there indicate that young Arab directors have social and political themes on their minds, as well as deeper issues pertaining to terrorism.

“Quite a few of the projects reflect the world that we live in,” Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman said of the 33 DFI-backed works chosen for pitching and feedback sessions, script consultations and rough-cut screenings.

“(Qumra filmmakers have an) urgent need to figure out how they can make sense of a disjointed world.”
Joshua Oppenheimer

Features in various stages at Qumra included French-Moroccan director Uda Benyamina’s “Bastard,” about a young Arab woman who deals drugs in the Les Pyramides ghetto outside Paris; “My Uncle the ‘Terrorist,’ ” a documentary by Lebanese first-timer Elias Moubarak about a relative who was involved in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre; and Lebanese-Spanish filmmaker Laila Hotait Salas’ drama “Stolen Skies,” in which a bomb explosion in Cairo causes an Egyptian journalist’s suppressed memories to resurface, influencing her dealings with her mother, husband and daughter.

“It’s about how the current (Egyptian) situation of war and dictatorship and religious conflict affects our most intimate relationships with our bodies and our sexuality,” says Salas.

A new Qatari shorts section at Qumra included two projects about arranged marriages: Nora Al-Subai’s dark comedy “A Ranged Marriage,” about a desperate wife plotting to kill her husband on their first wedding anniversary; and Amna Al Binali’s “The World Is Blue,” a drama about a woman coming to grips with her sister’s upcoming nuptials.

Notably, a study unveiled during Qumra by Northwestern University in partnership with the DFI found that in 2015, independent Arab films were twice as likely (26%) to be directed by women as were their counterparts in mainstream cinema (13%), which comprises Hollywood fare and popular pics from Arab filmmaking centers.

Among those supplying feedback to the filmmakers at Qumra were Funa Maduka, global content buyer for Netflix; Marie-Pierre Valle, head of acquisitions at Wild Bunch; Sundance Institute programmer Matthew Takata; and Toronto topper Cameron Bailey. Mentors included writer-producer-director James Schamus, director Joshua Oppenheimer, Russian auteur Alexander Sokurov, Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Japan’s Naomi Kawase.

Oppenheimer, who held an onstage conversation about his documentary “The Look of Silence,” about a family confronting the men who killed one of its members in the Indonesian genocide, said he was inspired by the Qumra filmmakers’ “urgent need to figure out how they can make sense of a disjointed world, when they themselves, and their own experiences of the world, have been formed by that same violence.”