The Doha Film Institute’s unique Qumra workshop wrapped its fifth edition on Wednesday following six days of masterclasses, labs and mentoring sessions that bolstered the DFI’s status as the prime entity fostering Arab filmmaking and connecting directors from most of the region with the rest of the world. 

Programmers from Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Berlin and many other major festivals were in attendance, as has become customary, as well as a select group of industry execs from more than 30 countries including a high-caliber U.S. contingent. They came to provide their input on 36 DFI-backed projects, most of which by Arab directors, and to hobnob in a relaxed informal setting.

“It’s a very intimate structure that doesn’t just offer support or critique, but also real dialogue,” said Iraqi-Moroccan director Tala Hadid (pictured) one of this year’s Qumra mentors. “They choose and curate very carefully who should go with which project, and who will be able to help it,” she added.

Several attendees praised the projects on display some of which are tipped to surface soon on the festival circuit starting with Cannes, similarly with what happened in 2018 after last year’s edition. 

Standouts in the Qumra picture lock section were France-based Algerian director Mounia Meddour’s “Papicha,” a portrait of a young woman who refuses to submit to fear during the Algerian Civil War; Tunisian director Hinde Boujemaa’s “Noura Dreams,” about a woman who dreams of divorcing her husband who is about to be released from jail; and black comedy “The Unknown Saint” by Moroccan helmer Alaa Eddine Aljem, in which a thief, after years behind bars, returns to the site where he had buried a large sum of money to discover that it has become a holy shrine. 

A non-Arabic pic, Bulgarian director Svetla Tsotsorkova’s drama “Sister,” a followup to her well-received debut “Thirst,” also generated buzz. Roughly 20% of DFI-financed projects are non-Arabic in order to ensure that the core of its grantees is not isolated in an Arabic ghetto. And about 50% are by woman directors, though there is no quota system.

DFI CEO Fatma Al Remaihi said she was proud of the fact that so many DFI-backed projects last year were at Cannes or Venice, and also found distribution. In 2018 there were six at Cannes, including Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum,” in competition, and also six spread around several Venice sections.

“The best achievement for this event is being a place of discovery for Arab cinema,” she added.

Qumra’s increasing influence on the festival circuit was reflected in the especially strong presence of U.S. execs at this edition. It comprised Netflix’s now London-based acquisitions executive Funa Maduka, whose role has recently expanded to include development, Amazon Studios’s marketing exec Ashley Hasz, Mubi VP of Content Bobby Allen, Elliott Whitton, head of development at film production and finance outfit Cinereach, and Sam Morrill, director of curation at Vimeo.

Wild Bunch, The Match Factory, and Doc & Film International where among attending sales companies, while producers who made the trek included Jason Gray at Tokyo-based Loaded Films, Poland’s Ewa Puscynszka of Opus Film, Morocco’s Lamia Chraibi, and Georges Schoucair, head of Beirut-based Abbout Productions.

The master classes held by directors Pavel Pawlikovski, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Alice Rohrwacher and others in the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art  were of uneven quality, the latter two hampered by language/interpreter issues. Direct press access to the Qumra masters was also more problematic than in past editions. In general the small international press corps was a bit relegated to the sidelines, one sore spot being no access to any of the Qumra projects’ screenings.

Similarly to last year the Saudi Arabia-led air and sea blockade imposed on Qatar since June 2017 loomed in the background.

“We all feel it,” said Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, who is Qumra’s creative director. “It’s very frustrating to see what’s going on. But we know that the answer is not anger; it’s actually to create cinema and react to it that way.”

Al Remaihi reiterated that Qatar has not changed its grants policy. The DFI is still open to applicants from all countries, but politics are preventing filmmakers from countries that are imposing the blockade to access this funding.

“There are many instances now of filmmakers now of filmmakers [from Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia] who would like to participate, but are reluctant because they are afraid of the consequences,” she said. 

The DFI chief also underscored that efforts to foster Qatari filmmakers are starting to bear fruit. 

Stills of Qatari director Hamida Issa’s environment-themed doc “Places of The Soul,” screening in the works-in-progress section, were printed on the cover of the Qumra catalogue and on several marquees to celebrate what is en-route to become the first completed Qatari feature shepherded by the DFI.

Issa’s doc is a personal exploration that juxtaposes two landscapes, the ice desert of Antarctica with the sand desert of Qatar and what the tiny oil and gas-rich nation has now become.

It’s about “preservation of our roots for the future,” she said. “Almost like I’m reminding myself and my people who we were,” Issa added.

“I remember when I was 7 years old: there was nothing here.”