Press Play! Highlights of the upcoming Ajyal Film Festival in Doha

MIME's favourites include the opening night film, which is Iran's submission to the Oscar race this year, a focus on Palestine complete with an art exhibition and talks, the 'Made in Qatar' film selection, as well as Geekdom -- Qatar’s largest and one-of-a-kind pop-culture event.
Press Play! Highlights of the upcoming Ajyal Film Festival in Doha

Landing into Doha's Hamad International Airport, one could almost believe the worst of the pandemic is behind us. Flights are full once again, while the traveling hub, which connects the East with the West and vice versa, is bustling with activity. The rules of our "new normal" apply of course, and even boarding a flight directed towards Qatar is a feat of wonder -- PCR tests, proof of vaccination as well as downloading and activating the country's Ehteraz app are all indispensable travel companions these days.

But what that does for a weary traveler -- one who used to love boarding a plane and getting out on the other side of the world yet isn't so sure anymore -- is reassure them. And inspire them once again, to fully reconnect with the power of cinema, of art, of entertainment in getting us through these terrible times.

Stepping out into the Doha early-morning heat proved pleasurable, as was seeing all the effort which is going into building up the infrastructure for the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup event. One could do a full Sound of Music type turn, arm outstretched a-la Julie Andrews and all, and feel the vibe of a whole new world blossoming. But careful to do it away from the traffic, as finding a pavement to actually walk on might prove challenging. Doha is a work in progress at the moment and getting from point A to point B, on foot, might not be advisable. Thankfully, there are plenty of Ubers, taxis and festival cars.

What brought us here is the Doha Film Institute's annual Ajyal Film Festival. Last year's edition was a hybrid event, both in person for residents of Qatar and online for everyone else. What allowed a real life event to take place in the Fall of 2020, right in the midst of a worldwide health crisis, was the Qatari grasp of technology and sanitary measures. There were art shows, drive-in cinemas and meet ups for those based here. For everyone else, we could watch films online and participate in discussions, which also proved very productive.

"We celebrate the resilience and positive spirit of our nation." -- Fatma Hassan Alremaihi

This year, Ajyal returns to a full in-person event and kicks off on November 7 with the opening night film by Asghar Farhadi, A Hero, this year's Iranian submission to the International Feature Film Oscar race. A Hero (Ghahreman), directed by acclaimed two-time Oscar winning Iranian filmmaker and DFI collaborator Farhadi has enjoyed international standout success and walked away with the Grand Prix at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

The weeklong film and cultural showcase offers something for everyone, marking the return to an action-packed week of a wide range of in-person and online experiences, enabling film lovers from around the world to explore compelling stories by outstanding filmmakers.  

This year’s theme, ‘Press Play!’, encourages the community to return to the much-missed physical togetherness and celebratory moments at the 9th Ajyal, while still following all safety protocols mandated by the authorities.  

Fatma Hassan Alremaihi, Festival Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Doha Film Institute, said: “As the world slowly returns to a new normal, there are few places better equipped and prepared to restart, rejuvenate, and reignite a passion for the arts than Qatar. The ninth Ajyal Film Festival returns to its original week-long run as we continue to present the Festival in an innovative hybrid format and expand the accessibility of all our programming to everyone in the community. Key to Ajyal are the life changing learning, friendships and unforgettable memories that film brings our youth and their families, as people from all walks of life come together to celebrate the joy of creativity.

Alremaihi continued: “We admire the commitment and dedication of the filmmakers, who overcame the challenges of the pandemic to create extraordinary works of art. As we continue to experience unprecedented challenges, we are thankful for the commitment of our community to carry the spirit of Ajyal forward and help us realise our vision for Ajyal 2021, as we celebrate the resilience and positive spirit of our nation.”

At Ajyal 2021, there is something for every film lover to explore – from intense dramas that present harsh human realities to inspiring adventures, much-loved classics, horror capers at midnight screenings, cine-concerts that will delight the little ones, and standout short films made by Qatari and international talents.  

In addition to the festival home venue of Katara, the incredible Ajyal selection of internationally award-winning features and compelling short programmes films will also be screened VOX Cinemas, Doha Festival City. Audiences across the city can participate in the diverse offerings, with the festival’s physical presence to include additional locations at Sikkat Wadi Msheireb and the drive-in cinema in Lusail. 85 films -- 31 features and 54 shorts -- from 44 countries, including 22 films by Arab filmmakers and 32 by women filmmakers. Among those, 13 films were supported by the Doha Film Institute, including recipients of the Spring/Fall Grants, co-financing, Qatari Film Fund and mentorship through the year-round labs and development workshops.

Also noteworthy, and an audience favourite is Qatar’s largest pop-culture extravaganza, Geekdom, which returns this year with an array of fun-filled in person events to spark the curiosity of everyone’s inner child at the ninth Ajyal Film Festival. Activities, which begin on November 8, will include Geekdom Talks, video game tournaments, film screenings and Ajyal Tunes.

Alremaihi explained: “Geekdom perfectly embodies the spirit of our festival’s theme this year, ‘Press: Play!’ It connects the community through our common love for fun and fantasy as a group. The beauty of Geekdom is its marvellous diversity of ages and cultures, where all generations celebrate their collective appreciation for integrating fun into technical and intellectual pursuits. Geekdom allows us to embrace our inner child with its pop-culture ethos to strengthen the social bonds of our community.”

Geekdom screenings include four classic Disney hits and two anime features, plus there is Karaoke every night as well as Geekdom Tournaments with an incredible selection of titles –- from Pokémon GO to the league of Legends, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, Guilty Gear Strive, FIFA22, Valorant, Street Fighter V and Tekken 7.

The Ajyal competition juries are also made up of young audiences, ranging in ages from 8 to 25, which is what makes the festival so special. Ajyal aims to educate the movie viewers of tomorrow while at the same time drawing inspiration from their taste, what they like to promote and support future projects by the DFI. It's a collaboration that allows for a great cinematic future in the Region.

While cinema is certainly the star of Ajyal, art from and about Palestine is also celebrated this year. ‘We Will Not Leave’ is a creative exhibition curated by Sheikh Khalifa Al-Thani. Inspired by the Al-Kurd family living in the embattled Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, the multi-media exhibit presents the works of 27 artists who express the harsh realities of the Palestinians through powerful brushstrokes and creative modes of modern expression. The event is complemented with the Artists Exhibition Talks, a series of insightful sessions that will shine a light on important topics related to the struggle, from Nov. 8 to 13, also available to the public at no charge, at Sikkat Wadi Msheireb.

To complement the exhibition, there will also be a series of talks, including an In Conversation between acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker, Elia Suleiman -- who has used film to tell melancholy tales of his roots touched with inimitable irony and humour, and film producer Jovan Marjanovic, on Nov. 8 at 7 PM. And Palestinian-British Farah Nabulsi, whose award-winning film The Present, supported by DFI, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film will discuss “Cinematic Hope: The Present and Future of Palestinian Filmmaking”, moderated by Rafia Hussain Oraidi on Nov. 10 at 7 PM.

For the full programme and to learn more about Ajyal, check out their website.

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