The greatness of Qumra, the annual industry event held by the Doha Film Institute to help connect, inspire and encourage filmmakers, lies in its diversity of activities. From the daily working breakfasts with some of the most well-respected festival directors and programmers, sales agents and producers to the Masterclasses with cinema greats, from its Qumra Talks to the networking sessions held each afternoon just around the corner from my hotel, there is a buzz of activity at any given moment and even a non-filmmaker like me can feel the excitement of great cinema in the making.
And there is also a sense of discipline that is so necessary to great art. Unlike music, where daily practicing makes perfect, filmmakers often go for months, even years without being actively involved in shooting a film, and it's during those times that a healthy dose of self-motivation and a constant craving for improvement come in handy. Qumra is like a jam-packed, ultra charged workout bootcamp to learn all the right habits necessary to inspire creativity within filmmakers. For a film lover like me, Qumra has helped me discover a renewed sense of enthusiasm towards the seventh art.
The first of the Masterclasses belonged to the otherworldly Tilda Swinton. At times, I feel like she is some type of goddess put on this earth to show us, mere mortals, how to behave, think, dress and be... classy. Her grace is one quality very few possess and watching her talk with Cameron Bailey of TIFF was like an exercise in 21st century style. I felt a bit like a fly on the wall of a personal chat between two exceptional people, the best in each of their respective fields. Yet two human beings whose mutual admiration also brought out the best in each other.
The audience of the Masterclass was treated to select clips from films such as 'Orlando', Jim Jarmusch's 'Only Lovers Left Alive', 'The Chronicles of Narnia', 'We Need to Talk About Kevin', and 'Michael Clayton' -- for which Swinton won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2008. The night before the audience had been treated to her latest, Bong Joon-ho's 'Okja' which premiered in Cannes last year.
It was surprising to hear Swinton say "I had never intended to be on screen. I don’t think of myself as an actor. I never did. I came from the world of art and writing. I wanted to be a writer not a performer.” Especially since her talent as a performer is undeniable. But the idea of thinking of themselves as something other than film makers turned out to be a leitmotif with the Qumra Masters.
"Being an author, I write alone; when I make films, it is a conversation with many others,” she also admitted, and pointed to the importance of the people involved in a project by saying “a script is a script is a script; but the person you are working with matters."
Perhaps the most surprising admission by the Scottish actress came when she said that "it is no secret that I am perfectly alright to have no lines at all. I would prefer to work silent; words are another whole story. But I like to know how the choices of the characters, what their body is like, how they walk around, what kind of face they present…”
Swinton also got teary eyed remembering something her son, who was 9 years old at the time, asked her at bedtime one night: “what were people’s dreams like before the cinema was invented?” And one wondered even what the world was like before the magic of film came along.
During Gianfranco Rosi's Masterclass, moderated by film historian Richard Peña, I kept thinking how this Maestro keeps offering us, his audience, cinematic prayers for our collective soul -- wordless poems that touch us deeply and powerfully and remain with us long after we've finished watching his haunting, perfectly "un-documentary like" documentaries. With each of his work, Rosi reinvents the genre and places before us a piece of the seventh art that mixes personal responsibility with a narrative format, told through the presence of real people, and actual places.
It was enjoyable to watch clips of Rosi's films, from his early and deeply moving 'Boatman' shot in Benares, India to 'Below Sea Level' a look at a down-on-their-luck community in California, to 'El Sicario, Room 164' based on an article by the late Charles Bowden, about a hitman of the Mexican drug cartel, as well as the Venice Golden Lion winner 'Sacro GRA' featuring the lives of people who live around the circular highway that connects all roads outside Rome. Of course, Rosi's 'Fire at Sea' was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 2017, after winning the Golden Bear at Berlinale the year before.
Rosi's Masterclass touched me more deeply than all the others, perhaps because as an artist, the filmmaker has had to compromise on his personal life. I remember reading somewhere that with every film he's made, an important relationship in his life was destroyed and while I'm often in awe of people who know how to blend perfectly their private lives with the work they do, Rosi's experience seems closer to the truth of the artist. Creativity thrives on personal struggle and when the filmmaker admitted that with each film he thinks of quitting, just so he can find a way to "love and be loved," I saw a strangely personal justification to so much in life.