Doha Thinking Local With New Youth Film Fest

George Tillman Jr.'s "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" was a best feature winner at this year's Ajyal Youth Fest.

The Ajyal Youth Film Festival hopes to inspire a new generation of Mid-East filmmakers.

DOHA – Doha’s inaugural Ajyal Youth Film Festival closed this weekend, giving organizers at the Doha Film Institute just a few days of rest before preparations begin on the next international film festival that swings into the Qatari capital next March.

Ajyal, the first of the two festivals set up to replace the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which was retired after four years when Doha and Tribeca announced their parting of ways in April, was a five-day, family-centered event that saw the emphasis clearly on enhancing children’s appreciation of film.

Loosely based on Italy’s long-established Giffoni Film Festival, with which Doha has a partnership, the program included 65 films from 30 countries, each touching on subjects deemed relevant to a young audience. The jury, which in previous years in Doha had attracted international filmmaking talent, was this time an all-youth affair made up of around 400 locals kids and teens from Qatari schools and universities, plus a small group selected from overseas.

“The stress levels were a lot lower this year,” admits Abdulaziz Al-Khater, DFI’s CEO who only joined shortly before the last Doha Tribeca Film Festival last year. “I’ve been a year in the job now. I think we were a lot more ready a lot earlier.”

Even to those who haven’t been closely following Doha’s growing film scene, Ajyal would have appeared an altogether different and far more low-key event than in previous years.

Kicking off in 2009, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, taking its cue from both the older Dubai and Abu Dhabi film festivals just a short plane hop away, had been heavy in A-list Hollywood names and titles, with each of these events seemingly in competition to attract the stars and regional premieres. This time around, the majority of red carpet attendees were accompanied by their parents or nannies.

But the change in tack following the split from Tribeca, which organizers claim was amicable and purely the result of the contract coming to a close, has seen the DFI focus on what it really wants to achieve, says Al-Khater.

“The festival is a big component of what we do in terms of our resources. Annually it takes up about half of our resources both in terms of manpower and financially. So this massive project each year, where we’re spending the most money, has to be getting the most return for us regarding our objectives,” he says.

“We see film being the DFI's central objective: promoting filmmaking in the Middle East. But interestingly, there’s a general lack of storytelling from (this) region that has always had an abundance of stories.”

Given that 65 per cent of the population of Qatar is under 25, Al-Khater believes an excellent way of tackling this is through a youth film festival aimed at encouraging this storytelling by showing a younger audience what can be achieved through cinema.

“With something like Ajyal, we’re saying that film can be education, it can be inspirational. We’re not necessarily talking about making films, more about the power of film and what you can do with it.”

Despite the new focus on the festival side, the DFI’s co-production operations are still very much on target, says Al-Khater. Last year’s festival opened with Mira Nair’s adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a DFI co-financed production, while the year before it was the turn of Black Gold, the big budget Lawrence of Arabia-esque flop that was financed by and partly shot in Qatar.

“We currently have a few films in development, and are always engaged in co-financing and co-productions,” says Al-Khater. “But I guess perhaps the timing of some of these projects was not aligned with Ajyal. Also the content for the festival is quite specific.”

At the Berlin Film Festival this year, the DFI announced a $100 million film fund with Participant Media for between 12 to 16 features. This deal comes into play at the start of 2014.
There’s also the big budget, Salma Hayek-produced animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s classic work The Prophet, which was announced early last year and is another co-production between the Doha Film Institute and Participant. “I think that’s almost done,” says Al-Khater.

Whether Doha chooses to premiere The Prophet at a major international festival -  like it did with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which went to Venice - or one of its own festivals remains to be seen. The feature could be ready in time for Qumra, the second of the two new festivals, set to run March 19-26, 2014.

Where Ajyal was about engaging youth, Qumra is centered on emerging filmmakers. “Basically what we’re trying to do with Qumra is create a place that is relevant for filmmakers that are just starting out. What we’ve been trying to do for the past few months is try to think of the challenges facing young filmmakers and how we can create an environment that supports (and also) celebrates filmmakers.”

Qumra ends just two weeks before Dubai’s Gulf Film Festival, among the elder statesmen on the regional film calendar and a long-standing platform for emerging talent. Wadjda, Haifaa Al Mansour’s celebrated Saudi drama that opened internationally this year, emerged from a screenwriting session at the Gulf Film fest and the event is considered by many to be the starting point for most local talent.

“Where someone else is doing something in the region, we don’t want to duplicate that,” says Al-Khater. “For us, it’s going to be about being very specific. We’re going to make Qumra really an educational experience as much as an experience to come and present your film and have it in common.”

Given it’s youthful aspirations, it’ll likely be some time before DFI is able to see whether its objectives for Ajyal have been achieved, or indeed whether Qumra is able to find a niche among an already bustling festival market for young talent.

But where the Dubai Film Festival, which kicks off this Friday, is striding ahead as the regional festival with the biggest stars, biggest films and biggest film market; and October’s Abu Dhabi festival has become far more Arab focused, it’s interesting to see the previously noisy Doha take a far quieter, more community and educationally-led route. For once, it doesn’t appear to be all about appealing to Hollywood and garnering headlines.