The yearly, five days long Qumra event in Qatar, held by the Doha Film Institute each March is that rare occasion for those of us who write about cinema to connect with the filmmakers, producers, film programmers, sales agents and festival directors who make the magic happen. Don’t misunderstand me now, I think film journalists and bloggers are equally to praise or blame for great movies being made. Our collective word, the reviews and interviews we manage to sell to publications or feature on our blogs, can create a movement that reverberates around the world. I know colleagues who pride themselves on making or breaking someone’s career. It’s not nice, but it is true. Take the case of Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘Below Sea Level’ and the infamous Variety review that ensured the film never made it to a cinema near you — a fact the filmmaker mentioned in his Masterclass at last year’s Qumra.
That said, in Doha there is a great energy created by the powers that be of the DFI, which allows journalists to relate to the film projects in such a personal way that it’s impossible thereafter to dislike it or even ignore it. Personally, I’m going into future festivals and upcoming cinema events knowing that the following five projects are going to be favorites of mine. It was clear from their filmmakers, their producer and the connection I felt with the subject of each of their films. And that’s really how I watch cinema, for a connection with what is on the big screen.
So dear Qumra 2019, mission accomplished!
‘Femmetasia’ by Mouhssine El Badaoui (in Development Feature Documentary)
Those who have been to Morocco on holiday, have probably witnessed some form of a Fantasia festival in the desert. It’s a horsemanship extravaganza full of dusty gallops and thunderous rifle shots fired into the air, complete with beautiful costumes, impeccably bridled horse and proud horsemen. Yet there is always one thing missing for a true horse aficionado, in those shows. The presence of women riders.
Mouhssine El Badaoui hails from a family of performers and after a stint as assistant location manager on films such as ‘Babel’ and ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ has been directing theater and TV in his native Morocco. The story of Hanane, a young woman from a modest village on the outskirts of Marrakech who decided to enter the Fantasia festival circuit despite the prejudice and hardship she faces attracted him immediately. The resulting film will be the stuff a horse lover and unconventional feminist like me will absolutely devour so it goes without saying that knowing the project is in “Development” is great news. I only wish El Badaoui will hurry up and finish the documentary soon, so I can watch it and love it.
I know it already.
‘Places of the Soul’ by Hamida Issa (Work-in-Progress Feature Documentary)
Another film I simply will turn blue from holding my breath while awaiting to watch it is Hamida Issa’s ‘Places of the Soul’. Issa was the first Qatari woman to travel to Antartica and out of her personal journey she has made a film. A documentary which promises to take us all on a trip of a lifetime. And in the process, unite the continents, in a “desert to desert” adventure.
Do we have a chance at saving our planet? It isn’t until we travel to extreme locations, like the Arabian desert or the ice tundra of the South Pole that we actually can even begin to ponder that question and find answers, very personal answers for it. I mean, how many of us profess to save the planet and yet don’t think twice about throwing a plastic bottle on the street, or even in the garbage — without recycling it. We don’t act according to our principles, that’s obvious in so many ways. With the recent NY Times story about an iceberg twice the size of NYC ready to break off from Antartica, more attention will be placed on that part of our planet. But are we too late?
Hamida Issa promises to ask all these questions and many more, as well as provide personal answers to the worries of our planet.
‘The Forbidden Strings’ by Hasan Noori (Work-in-Progress Feature Documentary)
My life mentor Arianna Huffington recently wrote about TV show ‘The Good Place’, addressing its importance. “It might seem strange to call a sitcom profound, but only if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s a show built on using ancient truths to navigate the present moment — which is a central part of our mission here at Thrive,” she said. In fact, I watch films much for the same reason, to help me make sense of the world around me.
Hasan Noori, in person is a grand body with a gentle soul. His producer Afsaneh Salari does most of the talking and such an imposing man letting a woman do the talking had me at “hello!” But his depth and the importance of his documentary go beyond, as Noori tells the story of four Afghan musicians born and raised in Iran who make the dangerous journey back to Afghanistan to make their dream come true — hold a rock concert in their war-torn motherland. Refugees in their native land, they could risk it all on the road from Kabul to Bamyan, notoriously a Taliban stronghold.
‘The Forbidden Strings’ holds a special place in my heart already, because it not only tells the story of Arikain, the band, but also of Noori himself — as he shares both heritage and destiny with the four band members.
‘Khuzama’ by A.J. Al-Thani (Development Feature Narrative)
For as long as I can remember being on Twitter, I’ve been following A.J. Al-Thani, a filmmaker in the Gulf. From the last name, I figured this person was a Qatari, but I knew little else — including whether it was a man or a woman, young or old. I mean, I sensed a powerful old soul and from the great insight and no-nonsense tweets, I imagined a young man. Instead, when I finally realized A.J. is a young woman, her views and insight became even more powerful and, how can I use any other word, “badass”!
In person, she is everything her tweets have been to me, and more. Strong, unequivocally woman and at the same time in touch with both her worldliness and her Arab roots, I found a wonderful conversation companion, with whom I enjoyed a pleasant working lunch. The result is that I now crave to watch her first feature, ‘Khuzama’ about a Bedouin girl who relies on the help of other nomadic women to survive the biggest ordeal of her life. Will she find her way back home, to the father she loves, to avenge both him and find freedom for herself? Well I want to find out and I want to find out now! But I’ll have to hold on a bit longer until the film is made.
‘Bombay Rose’ by Gitanjali Rao (Picture Lock Feature Narrative)
Last but not least, is Gitanjali Rao’s animated feature which is a follow up to her already successful and talked about shorts, the latter of the two ‘TrueLoveStory’ premiered in Cannes’ Critics Week in 2014 and is the precursor of the feature, as far as story. So while we don't want to jinx it by saying anything, we also kind of know where we will be able to watch ‘Bombay Rose’ and how soon. Thankfully!
Rao is a graphic artist and filmmaker and her film is supposed to be the stuff cinematic dreams are made of. I hear from those who saw advance clips in Doha. Hand painted frame by frame, Rao employs just over 60 animators, as opposed to a Disney/Pixar production which will usually have more than 500 people working on it. ‘Bombay Rose’ is a labor of love, a treat for the eyes and something to capture our collective soul.
Turned out, I could wax poetic about each of the projects presented at this year’s Qumra, as I’d wish to watch every film I heard about this year. Pretty cool, don’t you think?
So, see you at the movies!