The Doha Film Institute’s innovative Qumra workshop wrapped its fourth edition Thursday on an upbeat note, reiterating its support for new voices in Arab cinema and its determination to overcome obstacles posed by tiny Qatar’s diplomatic rift with several Arab countries.
While executives and directors from Egypt and the Gulf nations were noticeably absent, the event – which blends mentoring, co-production market, and festival elements – was attended by a top roster of about 200 international film professionals, including reps from Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia.
Despite the air and sea blockade imposed on Qatar since last June by some of its neighbors, the Doha Film Institute, which is a key financing source for Middle Eastern cinema, has not changed its grants policy. Its funding faucet is still open to all, but the diplomatic crisis is preventing some Arab filmmakers from making use of it.
Qatar has officially been shunned by its largest neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which accuse it of supporting extremist groups in the region. Qatar denies the allegation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also unhappy with Qatar’s close relationship with Turkey and Iran, the latter of which shares a massive offshore gas field with Qatar. The UAE has made it illegal for filmmakers to receive funding from Qatar.
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“The opportunity is still there for everyone,” Doha Film Institute CEO Fatma Al Remaihi said of her organization’s funding programs. “But unfortunately, some directors will not be able to benefit from it….And that’s a shame for the industry, because support sources are very slim.”
Al Remaihi cited an unidentified Egyptian project that had been awarded funding from the institute but that “could not take the grant” for fear of repercussions back home. Egypt is the Arab world’s cinematic powerhouse and has had a substantial presence at Qumra in past editions.
There are other Arab projects, however, including at least one feature from Saudi Arabia, that have opted to remain within the Doha Film Institute’s fold.
Politics did not seem to mar the mood during the six days of carefully curated one-on-one meetings, script consultations, pitching and feedback sessions, and rough-cut screenings. They revolved around 34 institute-backed projects, mostly from first- and second-time directors, some of whom from outside the Middle East. There were also master classes held in the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art by Tilda Swinton, Bennett Miller, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sandy Powell and Gianfranco Rosi, all of whom were on hand to provide feedback on specific projects. The creative director of Qumra is Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman.
Significantly, three of the features in development stage at Qumra were by young Qatari directors who have been incorporating the country’s current situation in their work.
Khalifa Abdulla Al-Thani, who works in the Doha Film Institute’s development department, said he recently shot two mockumentary-style shorts for which he created a character called The Fabricator, “who puts out lies, and people hire him to do that.” They take their cue from the fake news story that, in late May 2017, helped trigger the diplomatic crisis. Someone allegedly hacked into the state-run Qatar News Agency and posted a report on its website falsely attributing comments to Qatar’s emir that called Iran a “superpower,” lauded Hamas and speculated that Donald Trump might not last long as U.S. president. These were then immediately aired on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV channel.
Al-Thani’s feature film project at Qumra is “The Voice of Amirah,” a female empowerment drama “about the importance of education in Qatar from the perspective of a young girl in the year 1976,” he said.
Arab features in advanced production stages included Tunisian director Mohamed Ben Attila’s “Weldi,” about a Tunisian father coming to terms with his son joining ISIS; Lebanese love-in-wartime romance “1982,” by first-time director Oualid Mouaness; Sudanese director’s Hajooj Kuka’s “A Kasha,” an offbeat romance set against the backdrop of Sudan’s civil war; and Moroccan director Meryem Benm’Barek’s Casablanca-set “Sofia,” about a young woman in a traditional family who, while having dinner with her siblings, suddenly discovers she is about to give birth.
Footage from these titles, some of which are likely to surface at Cannes, screened at Qumra for high-caliber acquisition execs such as Netflix global content buyer Funa Maduka and MUBI’s V.P. of Content Bobby Allen.
The Arabic word “qumra” is believed to be the origin of the word “camera.”