On my last day in Doha, I spend the afternoon wandering around the Souq Waqif which I learned from a local filmmaker, literally translates as “the stand up souk.” In the olden days, before Qatar turned into the international, cosmopolitan country it is today, the sea would come straight into the alleys of the souk so the merchants had to stand up and pick up their wares during the tides. Thus the name, and actually while I wandered around checking out the shops, having a shawl sewn from a traditional flower fabric by a local tailor while drinking a karak chai (cardamon infused milky tea) and eating a chapatti flat bread filled with zaatar, I felt like I was transported back to those early days of the pearl divers and their haunting songs of the sea.
Doha is special place. I’ll never get tired of saying it. And their annual Qumra event, organized by the Doha Film Institute is sheer cinematic magic. Qumra is a meeting place, a five-days long networking session, a place to pitch, secure financing and ensure a screening chance for film projects. But it is also an occasion to recharge our collective passion for the movies. For journalists, producers and of course filmmakers, the atmosphere at Qumra offers an almost electric energy, a jolt of renewed hope in the future of the 7th art.
This year, I felt like I had unlimited access to it all. While last year, my first time at Qumra but not in Doha, I didn’t get to interview everyone on my list due to logistics and schedules constraints, this time around I met with everyone I wanted to write about and more. The organization of the press office, and their hospitality, feels unequaled. I even got great advice on where to get the best rose perfume oil and perfect quality dates from them! Talk about above and beyond the call of duty.
Part of the magic one feels at Qumra is definitely due to DFI’s management, those at the top. From H.E. Sheikha Mayassa Al-Thani herself, who clearly had a pioneering vision to create a self sustaining cinema culture in the Gulf, to the CEO Fatma Hassan Alremaihi to Qumra Deputy Director Hanaa Issa and without forgetting, of course, Palestinian maestro Elia Suleiman, who serves as Artistic Advisor of DFI. It is in fact Suleiman's presence which ups the ante for the filmmakers attending, since his cinema has always been so groundbreaking and his outlook so perfectly unique. To a young filmmaker, I imagine that having him there, overseeing it all, feels a lot like they are in the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Though way younger! His latest film is highly anticipated and his commitment to the Qumra cause, even though I’m sure he will be featured in the line-up of an upcoming festival and feels the editing room calling, is commendable.
Now going back to the filmmaker who told me about the meaning of Souq Waqif. Her name is Hamida Issa and she is also quite inspiring. Of mixed Saudi and Qatari roots — in itself a political statement as the absurd Saudi led blockade enters its third year — she is in the midst of finishing her documentary ‘Places of the Soul’ where she takes the audience on a journey “from desert to desert” as her pitch goes. In fact, Issa is the first Qatari woman to have traveled to Antartica and her film delves into the physical voyage but also the connotations of that trajectory between two of the most uninhabitable places on earth: the Arabian desert and the glaciers of Antartica. Both threatened by climate change, it was inevitable that Issa’s film would become a statement about the environment but her voice, her story as a woman of the Gulf is definitely the added layer here. I know I can’t wait to watch ‘Place of the Soul’ — really can’t wait!
The last two Masters at Qumra — remember I’ve already talked about Agnès Varda, Eugenio Caballero and Pawel Pawlikowski in previous pieces — also added to the magic. Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Alice Rohrwacher brought their own personal way of making cinema to the table and in each of their masterclass I discovered a yearn to learn about and revisit their respective work.
Part of Kurosawa’s genius was lost in translation, since he only speaks Japanese and his translator struggled to interpret his poetic nuances in English. He admitted loving “watching films as a child, but I don’t remember when I started making them,” although he made films as early as “high school, as a hobby.” In college he didn’t major in film.
Known for his thrillers and horror genre films, Kurosawa said that “genre movies are very hard to make and cost a lot of money,” however, still “even today, [I] strive to make the genre movie I dream to make.” The biggest lesson I got from his talk is perhaps this idea of striving to create the impossible, making a work of art that doesn’t exist yet. Creating with a different voice. And he’s certainly done that time and time again, in each of his best-known projects, from ‘Tokyo Sonata’ to ‘Cure’, from ‘Journey to the Shore’ to ‘Pulse - Kairo’.
Alice Rohrwacher, even though she was provided with a translator, decided to tackle her Masterclass in English. This is a woman whose answers are beautiful and poetic and typically in Italian. But I believe she chose English to really give her all and despite her problems with the language, she made the right choice. At one point, as I waited to ask her a question and could hear the collective sighs of other audience members who wished they too could pick her brain with their own query, I declared “I promise, my question will be very quick!” Not missing a beat, the witty Rohrwacher jumped in, “yeah, she want to know who my English teacher is, so she can have the same.”
That, in a nutshell, is why her films are what they are. Poetic, perfectly touching and, I use her word but add my own adjective, beautifully “ridiculous.” “The ridiculous is a special feeling” she explained, it allows us, the audience, she continued, “to escape from something touching us.” Count on Rohrwacher’s films to always open a flood of emotions and unleash human connections. But you’ll have to laugh a bit too in order to cry.
“If you are looking for emotions, you get the biggest emotion by watching a film with other people in a cinema,” was part of her answer to the Netflix/theater distribution debate. And I think that’s the secret of Qumra as well. Amidst strangers who become your friends, finding that common ground. For the love of great cinema.