Ever since its creation in 2010 on the peninsular country of Qatar, the Doha Film Institute has been revolutionizing cinema in the Region. The word “revolution” is never a sign of good things in the Arab world and yet at DFI, they should welcome the term when it comes to describing the work they’ve been doing almost singlehandedly to create and foster a healthy cinema culture in the Arab world. And beyond.
While film festivals in other neighboring countries have come and gone, film councils are created on a whim and diplomatic allegiances are destroyed, DFI continues steadily on its path to connect Arab filmmakers with the international film making industry, while also showing global cinema professionals all they have to offer in the Region.
This year, at Berlinale, I caught up with Hanaa Issa, the Institute’s Director of Strategy and Development and Deputy Director of their annual Qumra event. It is during these five glorious days every March that established cinematic legends and the filmmakers of tomorrow come together to enjoy an unparalleled movie community, and make the great films we’ll be watching at festivals around the world — and come awards season.
For example, at the upcoming fifth edition of Qumra, their Masters will include ‘Roma’ production designer Eugenio Caballero and Cannes Award veteran Alice Rohrwacher, the legendary Agnès Varda, Japanese horror director and writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski whose latest ‘Cold War’ may follow in the footsteps of his Academy Award winning previous ‘Ida’. All there, all ready to disclose their deepest secrets and most coveted insiders’ information to the audience of filmmakers and industry professionals during the event held from March 15th to the 20th, 2019 in Doha.
Past Masters at Qumra have included Oscar winning actor Tilda Swinton, Oscar-winning and multi nominated this year costume designer Sandy Powell, French auteur Bruno Dumont, Mexican actor/producer/director Gael Garcia Bernal, award winning writer James Schamus, Oscar nominated documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, Argentinian wonder Lucrecia Martel and Italy’s own Gianfranco Rosi, whose awards are multiple and well deserved. And the list doesn’t do the rest of them justice of course.
Catching up with Issa is always a favorite way for me to spend a morning. Her enthusiasm when it comes to cinema is something I relate to quite personally and the fact that I feel an affinity for her as a strong, intelligent woman makes our conversations flow easily. Following are highlights of our latest chat, inside The Ritz Carlton in Berlin, on an early weekend morning, when — by the way — I showed up a good hour before my scheduled appointment and Issa never for a moment made me feel anything but welcomed!
What is new at this year’s Qumra and what are you most proud of?
Hanaa Issa: We’ve never done production design before and it’s the fifth edition. We’ve pulled it off for five times, kept it relevant and kept it important and meaningful for both the projects and the industry. Every time, the choice of Masters is so exciting and inspirational and brings, I feel, long-lasting value to the filmmakers. And we just get excited to present such amazing talent from the Region to the international industry and to the Masters. And the quality, you are seeing the industry mature, the quality of the projects mature. They have more partners attached, have spent more time developing it. Many times, they already have sales agents attached, which wasn’t the case for example a few years back. Things make sense for us at DFI, because of the work we do year round with the labs and our workshops and now we’re seeing a lot of the grantees who had development support are using this to attend, for example, our screenwriting lab, or our producer’s lab. We are offering much more than just financial support and Qumra is about access. It’s access for the industry and talent to projects and about access for the projects from the Masters and others in their industry.
We have 36 projects, almost the same as last year maybe a little bit more. We had 35 last year They are 26 features and 10 shorts. A lot of female filmmakers, with female topics. And a few returning Qumra projects from last year. it’s great because they were in development and now they’re in post [production] so it shows a fast turnaround for these projects and hopefully a Qumra contribution getting them to the next stage.
For the first time we’ve got a Qatari project in post-production. Usually they are in development. This is a feature documentary, by Hamida Issa, ‘Places of the Soul’, and she’s the first Qatari woman who went to Antartica to shoot a film.
DFI has so many wondrous women in charge, so how do you think your outlook towards women filmmakers has changed in the last year or so?
Issa: I feel like people think because now it’s like a narrative that everyone seems to be paying attention to, but for us nothing has changed. It has always been the case, from the beginning. And even the leadership, there are a lot of women, our Chairman Sheikha Mayassa [bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani] and Fatma [Al Remaihi] the CEO of DFI. Also, a lot of the participants and the filmmakers we work with, naturally there were always a lot of women we were working with. And we found that male filmmakers have also been talking about female social issues and relating to it. A feminist push coming even from the male prospective.
The filmmakers from the region, from our grants, about half of the projects are from female directors. It’s always been something that existed at DFI.
DFI supported the first Arab woman to go to the Oscars — Nadine Labaki with ‘Capernaum’ is in the Foreign Language Oscar race this year. So you’re singlehandedly dispelling the kind of stereotypes that are present in the West about what an Arab world cinematic organization looks like.
Issa: Absolutely! It dispels the stereotype that exists globally in the film industry and in addition to that also perceptions that people outside of the Region perhaps think of women in the Region. They wouldn’t expect this.
In the film industry, whichever aspect you are into, you crave a sense of community. And I think Qumra for those five days provides that community.
Issa: And DFI has become that community. A lot of the people who come to Qumra are also mentors who work year round — even the Masters. Even Rithy Panh who was a Master a few years ago ended up coming to Doha for a six-week filmmaking lab. He lived in Doha for seven weeks and is coming to Qumra as a filmmakers’ mentor, not as a Master, but to personally mentor filmmakers. Even involvement of these very renowned and prolific filmmakers to come back and be invested in what we’re doing speaks to that community that you’re talking about. This is the environment where films flourish.
When they see what we’re doing they like it and want to be a part of it.
What is your goal for the end of this upcoming Qumra?
Issa: As always having Qumra be a stepping stone for these projects. Them having benefited and made the connections they needed, or found the extra resources and access point they needed. We love to see Qumra projects that came last year in development and are now in post-production. For us it means we are doing something right, if they have that fast turnaround. There are four returning projects.
Also we have more international projects, which then move on to win awards, films like ‘The Load’ and ‘Too Late to Die Young’. And this year we have new countries, a much awaited Indian project ‘Bombay Rose’ an animation and the filmmaker, she was in Cannes before. We’ve never had a project from India. And a Russian project, a Mexican project and a Bulgarian one. To be relevant not only in the Region but internationally, that’s not easy.
How is cinema and storytelling in the Region changing? I’ve noticed filmmakers are telling stories about the world at large, no longer just concentrating on the issues of the Arab world.
Issa: I was just thinking about that as well! We are moving away from that narrative. We are still seeing some of those stories but definitely now they are much more personal, tackling social matters and I feel also that the projects are becoming more universal in the themes and very global.
I feel a lot of social awakening, people are talking about important matters from a global perspective about the human condition, about pondering our place in the world. To be part of that narrative is important.