Best selling author R.A. Salvatore once wrote "It is better, I think, to grab at the stars than to sit flustered because you know you cannot reach them." In all they do, and how they unrelentingly and tirelessly support filmmakers, the Doha Film Institute folks prove time and time again that they are grabbing at the stars, not sitting by, flustered.
After having been to Qumra this past spring, I can't imagine the Arab cinema landscape without the presence of DFI. In fact, even after the Dubai International Film Festival called off its 2018 edition, because of DFI's mission I remain hopeful for the future of cinema in and from the Region, and I know I'm not the only one to feel that way.
This year, in fact, in the Festival de Cannes there are six DFI-supported films. In the main Competition, there is Nadine Labaki's 'Capharnaüm' -- check out my interview with the filmmaker in The National newspaper -- and also Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 'The Wild Pear Tree'; ''Sofia' by Meryem Benm’Barek and 'Long Day’s Journey Into Night' by Gan Bi are screening in Un Certain Regard; and in the Directors' Fortnight sidebar audiences will find both 'Weldi' by Mohamed Ben Attia and 'The Load' by Ognjen Glavonić. So, if you thought that DFI was only about cinema from MENA think again!
On May 10th, DFI also announced its next wave of grants. You can find out all the titles at the end of the piece, below the interviews. An important highlight is that of the 34 feature film projects selected for its 2018 Spring Grants cycle, 14 are helmed by women filmmakers.
I caught up with Fatma Al Remaihi, Hanaa Issa and Khalil Benkirane from the Doha Film Institute, on a typical bustling morning in Cannes, and yet the news from these three individuals whose love of cinema always proves infectious, made me hopeful and serene. And now that the DFI is expanding their program to include TV and web series, there are even more reasons to celebrate.
You started to hint at this conversation about web and TV series at Qumra but now it's official. Can you talk a bit about the announcement?
Hanaa Issa: Yeah, it was cooking then!
Fatma Al Remaihi: I think the timing is fantastic for it. Now TV has become a great power for telling stories and has been for years in the Region but became even better in the last decade. And now with filmmakers and movie stars going into series, and companies like Netflix changing the way series are made, it just became more clear to us that this was a great opportunity we could give filmmakers in the Region to tell their stories in a different format -- whether TV or web series -- and it has more reach than films. It can go into each person's phone and home and families can watch these together. So it made sense for us to start working on developing some of these series.
Web is obviously the next frontier, so how does DFI add to that conversation?
Issa: At its essence, we are here to support talent and stories and this is just offering other possibilities for talent -- other creative outlets. So if Arab talents want to explore these formats we are here to be able to support them with that. Whether it's short format, web or lower production value, but still they have to meet the standards set by the institute of quality, narrative, creativity and storytelling.
Khalil Benkirane: I just want to add that with web there is such a level of creativity in saying something in such a short time and also in a format that is as small as a TV monitor and that has a new audience of youth. So there is a certain adjustment that needs to be made and it fits within what we are trying to do, pushing the boundaries of content and creativity so it responds somehow to all this.
Al Remaihi: Creative freedom also. It's different than TV.
Issa: And you don't need these huge budgets that sometimes can tie you down.
What are the limitations imposed upon Qatar from the other Gulf countries, I mean, how are those affecting the work that you do? And how has the cancellation of the Dubai International Film Festival changed, if at all, what you do? Is closing a door, opening a larger window?
Al Remaihi: Well, closing doors is not a good thing for the industry. Not for anyone. Of course we are all sad with what is happening but it does put more responsibility on us to still be there for filmmakers. For us, with everything that is happening politically within the Region and in particular with the Gulf states, we've never changed our policies. Our funding, our programs, education and training is still open for everyone. But unfortunately not everyone now can access it, because they are afraid, they don't want to get into trouble into film. We've even had submissions from countries with our grants that we've accepted and they had to pull out because they were afraid their film would be affected by the political situation. So for us, we're still here for all the Arab filmmakers, but unfortunately, not all of them can take advantage of what we can offer.
It's sad, it's sad for the industry, it's limiting.
And why be political in a field that should steer clear of politics. Politics should stay out of cinema.
Al Remaihi: But these days we can see this all over the world, how politics affects not just the politicians and the army, but everything -- from the people to the culture and everything.
Issa: Filmmaking is such a collaborative effort...
So Khalil, how do you feel about all these DFI supported projects being in Cannes?
Benkirane: It's great for us. It's the third or fourth year now that we have a constant number of films in Cannes and it's great. Last year we even had seven I believe. But two films in Competition -- co-financed films. And four granted film.
Al Remaihi: It's a testament to the quality that the Institute thriving to achieve, and the quality of films that we attach ourselves to. We receive hundreds and hundreds of submissions for grants and we get a lot of projects for co-finance but we try to use our funding and our program in the best way possible for filmmakers. Because we get submissions, for example, for grants that we reject and we send a letter where we explain to them how they can make their film better. And then one year, two years, three years they submit and then the fourth year for example we accept it and it becomes a great film. So it's support, not just funding.
So you're even supporting them while you reject them!
Benkirane: We are not just a fund that supports films, we are an institute that wants cinema to grow, so we do send letters to projects that we reject, or even projects that we endorse, telling them "we endorse your story but we feel maybe this should be thought of in a better way" and obviously they are free to do so, or not. We are not co-producers who impose our own vision of a film, we endorse a way of telling a story and a vision, help them work and hope for the best.
DFI's Spring 2018 Grant Cycle
Feature Narrative - Development:
- Arabic Translator (Iraq, Italy, Germany, Qatar) by Ali Kareem Obaid, about Hassan, an Iraqi student, who starts working as a translator for Arabic-speaking refugees to stay in Germany. The job will lead him into an inner conflict, as his past and present collide.
- Behind Closed Doors (Qatar) by Hend Fakhroo, an intimate and visceral look at an Arab family from three different female points of view, all centering around the father figure. Hend had earlier received a DFI Grant for her short The Waiting Room.
- Longer Will Be the Night (Algeria, France, Qatar) by Latifa Said depicts Nora’s search for justice, when her native country Algeria decrees compensation for women abused during the 'Black Decade', a bloody and brutal civil war in the 1990s, she must seek witnesses to compensate for the medical certificate she lacks as proof.
Feature Documentary - Development:
- Gevar's Land (Syria, France, Qatar) by Qutaiba Barhamji, a profound exploration of how an uprooted Syrian refugee finds a natural affinity with the new land he toils.
- Heights (Algeria, France, Qatar) by Faiza Yakoubi documents young Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar and endeavouring to overcome the hardships of everyday life in Kuala Lumpur.
- The Kingdom of Malika (Algeria, France, Qatar) by Hassen Ferhani tells the story of Malika, who lives alone in the middle of the Sahara Desert. She runs a restaurant, a stopover for many truckers and occasional tourists on the Trans-Sahara highway, crossing from Algeria to Mali. A previous DFI Grant recipient, Ferhani’s Roundabout in My Head, his first feature earned multiple awards including the Grand Prix and GNCR Prize Special Mention at FID Marseille 2015
- The Cave (Syria, Denmark, USA, Qatar) by Feras Fayyad, depicts a group of female doctors who establish a subterranean hospital in order to save the lives of victims of chemical and conventional weapons during the Syrian civil war. Feras has previously directed Last Men in Aleppo, which was nominated for the Academy Award.
Feature Narrative – Production:
- 200 Meters (Palestine, Jordan, France, Germany, Qatar) by Ameen Nayfeh, in which a Palestinian man, living on the West Bank and separated from his hospitalised son by the wall, must embark on a harrowing journey to see him. A distance of 200 meters becomes a 200-kilometer odyssey.
- Adam (Morocco, France, Qatar) by Maryam Touzani narrates the story of Samia, eight months pregnant who has decided to give up her child for adoption. When she knocks on Abla’s door, a hard-working widow, both their lives will change forever.
- Girl Made of Dust (Palestine, Lebanon, France, Germany, Denmark, Qatar) by actor Hiam Abbass tells the story of 10-year-old Ruba who escapes into her imagination to save her family when living in a Lebanese village where the ravages of war draw closer every day.
- Harvest (Lebanon, France, Belgium, USA, Qatar) is by DFI grantee Ely Dagher and depicts a young woman, who suddenly returns home after a long absence and finds herself reconnecting with the familiar, yet strange life she had once left. Dagher’s Waves ’98, supported by DFI, had won the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Festival de Cannes.
- My Little One (Morocco, Belgium, France, Qatar) by Kadija Leclere is about Sarah, a Belgian woman of Moroccan descent, who adopts a little girl in Morocco. But when the Belgian authorities deny her child's visa, it is the beginning of an arduous ordeal for both of them.
- The Last Queen (Algeria, France, Qatar) by returning DFI grantee Damien Ounouri is set in Algiers, at the beginning of the 16th century. After the death of her husband, a queen must stand up to the most fearsome pirate.
- Tlamess (Tunisia, France, Qatar) by Ala Eddine Slim is the story of 'S', a young Tunisian soldier who deserts the army, and his meeting with 'F', a pregnant woman. Slim’s first feature, The Last of Us, supported by DFI, won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for First Feature and Prize for the Best Technical Contribution at the Venice Film Festival 2016 Critics' Week
Feature Documentary – Production:
- Children of the Famine (Lebanon, Qatar) by Reine Mitri, a previous recipient of a DFI grant, is a look into the death from hunger of an estimated 200,000 people in Mount Lebanon, between 1915 and 1918. There is no memorial for them. Few photos remain, and ruins emerge from oblivion.
- Plastic Flowers (Syria, Germany, Sweden, Qatar) by Amer Almatar is about a family's difficult search to discover the fate of their son and brother, a journalist abducted to the jails of Daesh in August 2013.
Feature Narrative – Post-Production:
- Haifa Street (Iraq, Qatar) by Mohanad Hayal depicts a vindictive sniper on Haifa Street in Baghdad, who shoots a man in broad daylight, preventing anyone from retrieving the body under the threat of gunfire. Hayal had earlier received a DFI Grant for the same film in its development stage.
- Joana, Imagination Is a Form of Memory (Brazil, France, Qatar) by Flávia Castro is about 14-year-old Joana, who returns to Brazil with her family after a childhood spent in France. As she struggles to adapt to her new reality, fragments of her past resurface.
- In Long Day's Journey into Night (China, France, Taiwan, Qatar) by Gan Bi, Luo Hongwu returns to Kaili, the hometown from which he fled 12 years earlier. As memories of an enigmatic and beautiful woman resurface, Hongwu begins his search for her. Past and present, realism and dream, all combine in a profoundly visual and highly innovative film noir ballet.
- In Sister (Bulgaria, France, Qatar) by Svetla Tsotsorkova, the lie of a teenage girl destroys the world of her elder sister. Struggling to regain her sister's trust, she finds out the truth about their mother.
- You Have the Night (Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Qatar) by Ivan Salatic is about Sanja, who returns home following her stay aboard a cruise. In an attempt to understand the people around her, she embarks on yet another journey.
Feature Documentary – Post-Production:
- Facing the Dragon (Afghanistan, USA, Qatar) by Sedika Mojadidi follows two unconventional Afghan women, one a member of parliament and the other a journalist, as the international community withdraws from their country's fragile democracy.
- In Freedom Fields (Libya, UK, USA, Netherlands, Canada, Qatar) by Naziha Arebi, at the new dawn of a nation once cut off from the world, a dynamic group of women from fractured sides of the revolution come together. Their dream, to form the first Libyan women's national football team. Arebi had earlier received a DFI Grant for the same film in its development stage.
- Midnight Traveler (Afghanistan, USA, Qatar) by Hassan Fazili follows an Afghan family on the run from the Taliban, with refugee-director Fazili offering an unprecedented first-person perspective on a geo-politically complex issue.
- The Devil's Drivers (Palestine, Germany, Qatar) by Mohammed Abugeth and Daniel Carsenty, depicts two Bedouin cousins smuggle Palestinian migrant workers through the Negev desert, chased by the Israeli army; in an intimate portrait of men living on the edge.
- Gubgub (Qatar) by Nouf Al Sulaiti is about an adventurous young girl, who goes crab-hunting with her father and brother. Discouraged when her father undervalues her accomplishments, she sets out to win his approval.
- The Unlucky Hamster (Qatar) by Abdulaziz Khashabi, is an animation in which Fluffy, a cute hamster in a pet shop dreams of a new home. But when someone finally decides to buy him, his dream quickly turns into a nightmare.
- Lemon Hart (Qatar, France) by Sara Al-Thani has a troubled young girl retell her tale of courage and the fear she endured at the hands of her stepfather.
- Brotherhood (Tunisia, Canada, Qatar) by Meryam Joobeur, is about Malik, an 18-year-old with flaming red hair, who returns to his small village in Tunisia after fighting in Syria and must confront a complicated relationship with his father.
- Burn the Bird (Palestine, Qatar) by Zahed Bata is about grief-stricken Samaa and her son Mohye, who set out in the middle of the night to bury her beloved parrot, inadvertently triggering buried feelings from a previous tragedy.
- How My Grandmother Became a Chair (Lebanon, Germany, Qatar), an animation by Nicolas Fattouh, is a whimsical story of transformation and discovery, as an ageing woman turns into a chair and finds companionship in the most unlikely of places.
- Prisoner and Jailer (Libya, Qatar) by Muhannad Lamin – a returning DFI grantee - is an animation – and a stirring tragedy based on actual events that asks the question, what happens when the prisoner becomes the jailer?
- Another animation, Rest in Piece (Syria, Germany, UAE, Qatar) by Antoine Antabi shows Midyan, who is escaping his war-torn home country, and is forced to eat his last and dearest belongings. But what will become of him after this strange supper?
- An experimental, 1001 Stars (Lebanon, France, Qatar) by Valentin Noujaïm, is about a father who only speaks Arabic, his wife only French, while their son speaks both. A mysterious visit by The Unknown one night, will change the way they communicate forever.