Outstanding: the 'Made in Qatar' programme at Ajyal shows that creativity is borderless

Displaying both an array of talent and outstanding production quality, this year's 'Made in Qatar' programme made us yearn to watch more of the work of these outstanding filmmakers, who hail from as far as the US, Algeria, Lebanon, Sudan and of course, Qatar.
Outstanding: the 'Made in Qatar' programme at Ajyal shows that creativity is borderless

The last time I watched the 'Made in Qatar' full programme in Doha, was in 2014. Many years have passed, the world has gone through wars, waves of displacement, explosions, natural disasters and for the past year and half, a global pandemic. And now this new generations of filmmakers from or based in Doha, have created a programme that is worthy of major A-list festivals around the world.

In fact, three of the films in this year's programme have been featured in Venice, Locarno and at Tribeca in NYC. It's no surprise as both the production value and the visionary talent these films expose is groundbreaking.

This is not to say that in 2014 I wasn't impressed with the filmmakers and their work. But looking back on it through the eyes of this current world, those stories were regional, smaller, more personal tales that perhaps would make it difficult for foreign cinema audiences to connect. This year's selection is not only worldly but it displays a broad vision that left me astounded. Part due to the Doha Film Institute relentless work in uniting the world through cinema, part due to the great Qumra masters that have come to Qatar to mentor and sustain the burgeoning cinema culture here, but all 150 percent due to the world vision of the younger generations living in Qatar. It's obvious, from the mature way they connect with each other, to the wise, intelligent ways in which they are able to describe their work, this is a generation of filmmakers that will change the world, one movie, one audience member at a time.

"Arab cinema continues on an upward trajectory, leaving its unique imprint in the global film community." -- Fatma Hassan Alremaihi

It is noteworthy to point out that the ten shorts will vie for the 'Made in Qatar' Awards, chosen by a jury which includes American actress Sheila Vand, Executive Board Member and CEO of Katara Studios Ahmed Al Baker and Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-winning Palestinian-British filmmaker Farah Nabulsi whose short film The Present was supported by DFI.

Fatma Hassan Alremaihi, Festival Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Doha Film Institute, said it best: “I am extremely proud of the determination, passion, and professionalism of this year’s MIQ class persevering to realise their projects despite the limitations of a global pandemic and the restrictions that came with it. Our home-grown creatives have emerged more impressive than ever, and unequivocally represent the quality and importance of film coming from Qatar and the region. Arab cinema continues on an upward trajectory, leaving its unique imprint in the global film community. The inspirational and poignant films being created in Qatar and the wider MENA region will further drive the momentum of our regional cinematic ambitions, and more people will take note of the significant global influence.”

She then added: “It fills me with pride to see the filmmakers of Qatar emboldened to take their narrative into their own hands, and ensure their voices are being heard in an authentic way. The selection includes thought-provoking works by emerging local talent that offer fresh perspectives on life that reflect human hopes, aspirations and challenges.”

The programme of ten shorts was screened in Katara's Drama Theatre on Tuesday evening, presented by Ooredoo, and in the presence of Her Excellency Sheikha Al-Mayassa, Chairperson of Doha Film Institute.

Some of the standouts, but really every single film held its own and left room for thought, included Majid Al Remaihi's And Then They Burn the Sea, which premiered in Locarno and is a very personal insight into the mourning of someone whose memory is no longer able to include their own son's name. Beautiful filmed and reminiscent of early Vittorio de Sica films, there is a haunting image from The Cruel Sea, probably the first film ever made in the Gulf, projected on a wall, with the half moon in the background that simply took my breath away. Al Remaihi said he didn’t intend to convey just one message with his film: “I was thinking on a couple levels: One, about what cinema as a medium allows me to express; secondly, as the son of a mother going through memory loss. Cinema is a language; it doesn’t have to have a social or political message. It can be about evoking feelings and enriching experiences that go beyond the dramatic. It is sensory and transport you to other places.”

From Venice, a personal favourite is Shaima Al-Tamimi Don’t Get Too Comfortable which you can read all about here.

Ania Hendryx Wójtowicz's Fever Dream is a fantastical documentary which was filmed while the director and her husband were in isolation, infected with Covid-19, in Doha. She said: “A lot of people on this panel [the Made in Qatar Programme] have been making films for years. There is consistency and that shows maturity.” She said Qatar is “a melting pot, super-international and diverse and my film presents an experience of the fears, isolation and uncertainty following the pandemic, which in a way unified everyone across the world. It speaks to a universal process.”

It is noteworthy that the majority of the films in the programme this year were documentaries and many of the filmmakers confessed being inspired by Cambodian director Rithy Panh, who has conducted a few documentary labs at the Doha Film Institute.

Two fiction shorts that were breathtaking included Border by Sheikh Khalifa Al Thani and Olayan by Khalifa Al-Marri. Border tells the harrowing tale of a man trying to travel home to see his family. Set in a dystopian future, it really does push most of the buttons that traveling during this pandemic have created in us. And it also questions the idea that some people will glide through airports and travel hubs more easily, according to their nationality and religious beliefs. Border is a must-watch for all, truly.

On the other end of the spectrum is Olayan, which instead delves into Al-Marri's Bedouin background. The story of a boy unable to separate from his beloved camel, and ready to go through any means to make sure his pet doesn't leave, is beautifully filmed and brave.

Virtual Voice by Suzannah Mirghani, a digital-savvy and satirical review of our online time. Frenzied, funny and also hauntingly true, Virtual Voice was filmed entirely on Mirghani's phone and on Zoom. If a perfect pandemic oeuvre exists, it's Virtual Voice.

Other noteworthy shorts include Atlal (Remnants) by Balkees Al-Jaafari and Tony El Ghazal, which follows a wistful Palestinian man who embarks on a trip down memory lane to the pivotal locations of his life in Qatar and When Beirut was Beirut by Alessandra El Chanti, an animated documentary which also reminisces about a Beirut past -- one that perhaps will never come back.

Fatma Zahra Abderrahim's A Lens Under Water takes an eye-opening and colourful dive into the teeming coastal waters of Qatar. The filmmaker said her film’s theme is the universal idea of protecting the environment, “diversity is not only about differences; it is also about with the various messages in our films or being able to receive a message in a various manner. Our project about the beauty of the environment and underwater life is something that matters on a big scale to everyone. Our environment unifies us all, and the important message is that as filmmakers, we help people understand us through our films.”

The filmmakers collectively pointed to the support provided by the DFI to nurture local talent. “It takes a lot of research and inspiration, and our filmmakers don’t participate in Ajyal just once.” They said they benefit from the absence of the patriarchal challenges common to the industry in other places. “Qatar has a bold young film culture and that encourages us to push boundaries.”

Ajyal Film Festival runs through the 13th of November in Doha, Qatar.

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