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DOHA, Qatar — Despite the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, the turmoil in Syria and the ongoing changes in post-Arab Spring — the collective name for a series of revolutions and uprisings that occurred across the Middle East and North Africa across countries including Tunisia and Egypt — Doha Tribeca Film Festival attendees find themselves in an oasis of relative calm.
But with filmmakers from those territories and Qatar itself all coming together for the festival, there’s plenty of talk of challenges, gender politics and a collective feeling of pain at the suffering across the region.
Qatar, one of the smallest gulf states, avoided being swept up in the Arab Spring and is regarded as one of the more progressive countries in the region.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in one of the city’s boutique hotels built in one of the Souq marketplaces, Doha Film Institute CEO Abdulaziz Al-Khater said it’s not for the organization he runs to have a “position on the politics of the region.”
The recently appointed chief of the Institute that mounts the annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival is not afraid to suggest the Arab Spring will “encourage and promote cultural dialogue in the region” and hopes the Institute, for which one mandate is to facilitate local filmmaking efforts, can be part of that.
The festival’s lineup includes an Arab Competition strand for narrative features, feature documentaries and short films from the region.
In the running for a documentary feature prize is the film The Lebanese Rocket Society, directed by Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas.
The Lebanon, France and Qatar co-production details the Middle East’s first rocket launched in the 1960s just outside Beirut.
But as Israel and Hamas exchange missile attacks, the rocket of Joreige and Hadjithomas’ film isn’t a weapon — instead it marked the region’s audacious entry in the international space race, a dream wiped out by the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.
Joreige, sitting at a waterfront restaurant for a DTFF lunchtime shindig to celebrate Arab filmmaking endeavors, remains sanguine about the region’s trouble.
“The thing about the turmoil felt in a certain country in the region is that we all feel the situation. We are a vivid place,” Joreige said.
But it’s a good thing for creativity. “It’s difficult and violent and people die, but it’s a way that makes us a place that evolves all the time, constantly changes,” he added.
Across the tables is Dutch director Karim Alexander Pitstra, here with Die Welt (The World), a film predominantly shot in Arabic and set in Tunisia and the Netherlands.
Despite not speaking Arabic, Pitstra’s story about a young Tunisian man who meets a Dutch girl in a nightclub is set in the “vacuum between Tunisia’s revolution and democracy.”
The movie came from Pitstra’s own story, which saw his Dutch mother marry his Tunisian father after they met on a beach. His father left when he was 5 and remained estranged for more than 20 years before Pitstra decided he wanted to find his father, who was living back in Tunisia.
“The film for me is not about politics but about identity,” Pitstra said.
But he thinks one of the reasons Qatar and its Doha-set film festival can play host to diverse Arabic filmmaking that deals with themes that spark local debate over gender politics and wider-ranging issues about interaction with the West and America is because it has its own strong sense of self.
“This country has a much more defined Arab identity, which means they can say, ‘This is who we are and you can deal with us from that basis,’ which lets us react in whatever way we do,” Pitstra said.
Maggie Morgan’s Asham: A Man Called Hope, which narrates the stories of six couples at different stages in their relationship, is set against the lead-up to the Jan. 25 Revolution in Egypt.
“I feel if we don’t tell our story, how we feel and how we are, then no one else is,” Morgan says, adding ruefully, “That’s obvious, of course.”
She noted it is important for Arab female filmmakers to “contribute to the output.”
For one attendee, however, the festival bubble that allows filmmakers to huddle together and discuss their work while regional conflicts rage is a source of frustration.
Veteran Egyptian documentarian Tahani Rached is here with A Deep Long Breath, a feature she made on the streets of Cairo during the 18-day revolution in Egypt.
“We are in a terrible situation, a terrible situation. With what is happening in Syria, Gaza and Egypt, everything is so unpredictable,” Rached said. “We don’t know, we’ll have to go day by day. For us, in our countries, we need to put pressure through culture on politics.”
Rached, who spent 15 years working for the National Film Board in Canada, also pointed to the fact that while her films and other Arabic work exist at festivals, she wants the films to be seen by the public.
“I make films for the public to see but they don’t get distributed. I know that the public want to see stories about real people doing real things, but they just don’t get a chance because TV doesn’t want to put them on in that way,” she said.
For first-time Egyptian filmmaker Hanan Abdalla, commissioned and bankrolled by the United Nations to make her movie In the Shadow of a Man, the issue is the need to get female voices out there from Egypt.
Her documentary features intimate conversations with four Egyptian women from different backgrounds who go through their own personal revolutions against the backdrop of the country’s own.
“I decided it’s not about the subject matter, it’s how you approach the question,” Abdalla said, as her festival limo purrs its way to a press conference for Arab filmmakers.
“Without socio-economic change in Egypt, you won’t see any change in rights for women or indeed some men,” Abdalla said. “There is optimism. I think it is tainted slightly, but revolutions are long and winding and they take years to play out. A lot of seeds for change have been planted and in the end they’ll grow.”
The four female filmmakers Shannon Farhoud, Ashlene Ramadan, Melanie Fridgant and Rana Khaled Al Khatib also represent the future for Qatari filmmakers.
The quartet behind the documentary Lyrics Revolt, a film about hip-hop across various MENA territories and how it played a part in the Arab Spring (it opened the festival’s Made in Qatar section), have set up their own Qatari production collective, Torath Productions.
The four graduates of Qatar’s Northwestern University agree that while Qatar remains “very conservative” it is heading in the right direction, and they are confident they will be able to pursue filmmaking ambitions.
Al-Khater should be pleased.
He said, “We would like to bring the Middle East to the world and the world to the Middle East.”
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