Feature narratives and documentaries from the Arab world nurtured at Qumra, the Doha Film Institute’s annual talent incubator event, are building bridges and connecting global audiences to their bold themes, many underpinned by the searing pain of civil and political strife.
At a media briefing, filmmakers associated with the projects shared their cinematic experiences, and highlighted how the Doha Film Institute’s support helped them to fine-tune their works and hone their cinematic instincts to depict their stories with conviction and confidence.
Karim Bensalah, director of Blacklight (Algeria, France, Qatar), who currently lives in France, says he carries stories of his homeland and uses cinema as a medium to address personal and political connections. “Through film, I am trying to express my own identity, to depict what I really feel strongly inside and put it before the world. I try to open spaces from the mixed cultures I see and create bridges of understanding with people across the world.”
He presents this through his protagonist, Sofiane, an Algerian student in France, who suddenly falls victim to an administrative decision and becomes illegal. In order to legalize his situation, he finds a job in a Muslim funeral home which turns out to be a life-changing experience. “The journey of my character is defined by elements of spirituality, his relationship with death, and through it all, I try to present the universality of human suffering.”
Karima Saïdi, the director of Those Who Watch Over (Belgium, France, Qatar( was inspired by her grandmother, a first-generation immigrant in Belgium. “The story of our ancestors who lived in this country and how perceptions have changed and evolved over the past three generations are intriguing. By setting my story in a multi-confessional cemetery, I am presenting another aspect of immigration – of those who have passed away far from their homeland, and about their loved ones who developed a new relationship with them.”
Al Baseer – The Blind Ferryman (Switzerland, Iraq, Qatar) by Ali Al-Fatlawi, is as deeply political as it can get yet no heavy-handed. Ali said the story of a blind man who finds his way around the southern Iraqi marshes and his tryst with a mysterious woman is deeply inspired by his own life experiences. “Two of my aunts were blind and I lived through the wars in Iraq as a child in the 1980s. When I left Iraq and moved to Zurich, the civil war of 2007 made me very angry. I wanted every Iraqi to be like my aunts so that they would not shoot each other. That was the starting point of the film.” He want back to his own ‘memory box’ to create a film that is not only political, but also surreal and presents the ethereal beauty of his country that is less depicted in cinema. “I want people to understand us better through our original stories – about the simple things we love and cherish; I wanted to convey things we see through our hearts not our eyes.”
Similarly personal is the feature documentary, My Father Killed Bourguiba (Tunisia, Qatar) by Fatma Riahi (pictured above). For Fatma, the coup of 1987 was not only a political event in Tunisia but also a personal family event that turned her and her family’s lives upside down. The film depicts her search of her father’s story, which began 15 years after his death. She said working on the project was “very difficult, as it is not easy to put one’s own life in the quest for truth. But I believed it was important to tell my story, as it also reflects the psychological aspects of the political experiences in Tunisia.”
Filmmaker Asmaa Gamal presents a deeply inspiring theme with her project, A Dream to Fly (Egypt, Qatar) about a group of young people from the crowded slums of Cairo who escape their daily hardships on motorcycles by night. “I was raised in a slum in Cairo and I was interested in the lives of the young people who had a passion for motorcycles. Cairo is made of blocks and highways, and behind them, you enter the world of slums. My film shows how these young people in the slums create a life parallel to their reality in pursuing dreams led by passion. I try to link the two worlds of people who fly with dreams of simple things, such as a means of transport.”
And last but definitely not least is Anas Khalaf's project The Photographer, his follow up to The Translator which we love here at MIME. We asked Khalaf how important it was to tell this story, and what level of reality he would bring to this project. He answered: "The story of this man, it's a real character so it's true events, nobody knows who he is -- his identity or background, what he looks like. It's a mysterious ghost guy we only know by his code name "Ceasar". The story really happened and he smuggled the photos out of Syria of the dead and tortured civilians. This was in 2015 and everyone followed this story, especially Syrians living at home or abroad. And we really thought at the time that something would change in Syria after this, because the evidence was too obvious -- over 50 thousand photos!"
He continued: "instead, nothing happened, and five years later, in 2020 when I started writing the script, I was surprised to find out no one had written about him or made a film about the story already. There was a documentary being made by a French woman director, which will be in festivals before the end of the year but no fiction. I researched a lot and tried to make it a political thriller, because I like to work in fiction, I wanted it to be something very tense and very difficult to watch. Not because of graphic violence but the story itself and the character's journey." So how real will it be, we asked Khalaf? "It's going to be as real as it gets considering we don't know anything about the guy, so it's his actions, what we know them. But everything else, the character development, the story, his back story and all the people around him are pure fiction. I invented everything, it's probably not even close to the reality of this man but it's ok, because this is inspired by the events and not telling his real life story -- which will be clearly noted at the beginning of the film."
"The importance is the mission and what he was trying to achieve in the history of Syria, and that he didn't do it, he couldn't do it -- so it's the hope and the immediate disappointment and the tragedy of this man who did it all for nothing." In fact, Khalaf pointed out that he is hiding somewhere, the real photographer, in Europe, away from the regime and his life, as he once knew it, is finished.
The filmmakers said the Doha Film Institute’s initiatives, especially Qumra, plays a central role in bridging cultures through cinema and providing greater visibility to film projects from the Arab world.