They say if you want to learn about something, go to the source.
For filmmakers in the Middle East, but also around the world, Elia Suleiman has long been the Oracle, the man with a knowledge to create momentous cinema, cinema that can change the world. Suleiman is the most brilliant source today of modern Arab cinema, the kind that breaks across borders and tears down the divide -- as his frequent trips to international film festivals and award ceremonies have proved.
So I thought, if it works for filmmakers, it could work for me. I shall ask Suleiman about Qumra myself, so I can unravel the mystery of this yearly event held in Qatar, under the auspices of the Doha Film Institute. I mean, the DFI has been very open and forthcoming about their week-long-mentorship-slash-industry-meet-and-greet-slash-film-connection event, but I still hadn't found a fascinating enough explanation of it in the media. One that would hold my attention and really explain the ins and out of Qumra.
Until I met Suleiman, DFI's Artistic Advisor and Hanaa Issa, Deputy Director of Qumra and Director of Strategy and Development at Doha Film Institute during Berlinale. One Sunday morning in Berlin, a leisurely breakfast talk later and now eagerly anticipating the start of Qumra in Doha, I finally understand.
Could you explain Qumra to me? I mean I know the mission of the Doha Film Institute is to ultimately make great cinema, and that's fantastic. But how do you go about it exactly? How does great cinema happen?
Elia Suleiman: I think "great cinema" is not really the appropriate headline for this, it’s "grassroots cinema". One shouldn’t be so presumptuous to assume that’s what we are producing. We are producing opportunities for people to make films, and the individual filmmaker who goes out there estheticizes and then makes great films. But Qumra is to create that environment and to actually push for better circumstances for the filmmaker. And it’s made of this puzzle of grantees who are selected who have works in progress, the Masters and the people who come to see them. So there are a few elements coming together actually to make this happen.
So there are the Masters, and the filmmakers with their works in progress but how does Qumra work exactly?
Hanaa Issa: Qumra really all starts with the projects. Through everything that we do year round — through the grants program, through training and development, the labs and the workshops that we do — we become really, at Doha Film Institute, an incubator of talent for the Region. Some of these projects, the right talent, the right project, are invited to Qumra. So we start with the right selection of projects, a mix of documentaries, drama, short films, experimental, different stages. It’s a very well curated event, to create a certain atmosphere for these projects to meet specifically the people they need to meet and we spend a lot of time creating the different itinerary for the projects. We follow up with them throughout the year, and ask them questions through surveys, like where they are and what their needs can be. Same with the industry, what they are looking for and who’s the right match for people to meet.
All this in an atmosphere that’s very intimate, non-pretentious, there is no red carpet, no awards — it’s an industry meeting event and a lab. And on top of that, it’s an atmosphere of inspiration and learning through the Masters, there are individual masterclasses every day to inspire everyone there, but also meet individually with the projects.
There have been some wonderful examples of projects which connected with the Masters in the past and continued a sort of mentorship and collaboration.
How do you choose the projects?
Issa: As far as the projects, people don’t apply for Qumra, there is no application process. We select them from the projects we have already supported. There are no projects which have not lived within our universe before. They have either been funded already from the Grants program or they’ve been funded through the Qatari film fund for local filmmakers or through our Labs — for example the Screenwriting Lab and the Producers’ Lab. Qumra is never the first step for a project. It’s a long process also because we want to have a wide selection of projects, diverse selection of films which are attractive to the industry. It’s all part of the cooking…
The big caldron of filmmaking!
Issa: And the Masters are also a big ingredient in the cooking!
Mr. Suleiman, what is your mission at the Doha Film Institute?
Suleiman: The original reason why I did what I did — and I mean even before the DFI — was simply a passion for interchange and exchange with young filmmakers and giving them a little piece of my experience, whether it’s the possibilities or the limitations or the difficulties I went through. And to also enhance their knowledge and open certain scopes for them. It started with masterclasses. Because when I grew up, the circumstances for such possibilities were quite limited.
Did someone help you while you were growing up as a filmmaker?
Suleiman: No, and this is exactly what I was going to add. My initial difficulty is nobody helped from our surrounding. It was more or less a few filmmakers and they fought for the little quarters. So, just the contrary -- the young person arrives and they’d try to block his way. I’ve seen it happen after I made films, to other young filmmakers by the same kind of old generation who wanted to cling to some sort of illusionary power. I think this was a bit of my comeback at them, to allow for these young filmmakers to have the chance to actually go and make their films. Part of me actually remembers that moment and it’s not revengeful, but rather to open the way for them.
Then that developed into a passion for giving masterclasses so all through my career I’ve been giving masterclasses.
You’ve helped a lot of young filmmakers.
Suleiman: Because that’s my pleasure! I mentor a lot of filmmakers. And so, what better forum than to have an organization that can facilitate and make room for that. I think through exchanging ideas Qumra came about and in the first year, I gave a Masterclass myself. What is interesting about Qumra and the DFI is that it’s concentrated in one milieu. I don’t need to go to this and this and that, it all comes together in one place, and of course it’s much more fruitful with the support of a huge organization.
The Masters this year are sublime, so diverse in background and crafts. Do you want to talk about how they came together?
Suleiman: They are all part of the poetry that they come together this way. We might initiate the energy but the success doesn’t come from us, rather from the cosmic elements that come together. This is really how it seems to have happened in the past and how it’s happening now. We look at it from a little distance and see the “bunch” and we see that it works. That’s basically how we look at it.
It’s not really about picking and it’s not for the price of success that this is done — it’s for the price of the initial idea of Qumra. It’s like a universe, if it works you see it and live it, if it doesn’t you also see it and live it — and so far, I think it’s been taken from us and taken its own life.
There is this unwritten rule about the creative process that struggle is best for the artist. Yet at Qumra you create this environment where struggle is eliminated from the artist’s equation, at least for these six days. So what is your opinion, is struggle better or not for the artist?
Suleiman: I’ll give you a personal, professional answer, from my world but which fits also what we are doing in Qumra. What happens when you do a collaborative work is that you may come out initially with an idea, lets say for a scene, and you might have felt the creative aspect to have come from a solitary moment you’ve lived, but the rest is collaborative. And I think, lets say within what we do, each one comes out with their own solitary moment of what can be a creative idea, and at Qumra we go into a double collaborative effort. I think that's maybe the magic of it. And when it doesn’t work, it drops by itself, like when the ideas don’t match, they tell you. I make films that way too.
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort.
Suleiman: Oh my god, yes. I think the success of a film comes only if it is a collaborative effort. There is this hierarchy and [as directors] we take the credit for it, but I can tell you working as I am now with a cinematographer and we are discussing a scene, if he does not come forth with a kind of idea, seduction of some sort, I will start to accumulate useless pyramids. But if there is this kind of back and forth, the contrary happens and you start to have a sensual feel for what you want to do. Cinema is best done when there is people working together.
Film is supposed to also promote some potential reality. We see the world we live in, and make art because we want to do something better with it. Of course when you come to change a status quo you will be challenged and struggle. The same thing with any kind of daydream that you want to make into a reality, it’s going to take some sweating. From idea to actualization it’s going to be a process.
Is there one single thing, or idea filmmakers should take away from Qumra?
Suleiman: I don’t think there is one thing that everyone takes away from anything. But I can say, and it’s not a one thing, if a director can come away from the event enchanted and inspired… One filmmaker told me that he left Qumra rushing to work, he was so inspired, he said “I left to rush to work, because I was so inspired by this energy”. And this is what gives us gratification.