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“Putting the spotlight on Arab cinema more than ever”: DFI in the time of an embargo

Two years after a blockade was imposed on the country by its neighbors in the Gulf, Qatar is not just surviving but actually thriving. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the cinema culture they fought so hard to create, as the recent presence of seven films supported by the Doha Film Institute at the Cannes Film Festival proved. E. Nina Rothe caught up with DFI management, both on the ground in Doha and later in Cannes, for an insightful chat.

Elia Suleiman and Gael García Bernal in a still from Suleiman's 'It Must Be Heaven'
Elia Suleiman and Gael García Bernal in a still from Suleiman's 'It Must Be Heaven'

Two years ago almost to the day, in June of 2017, four countries in the Gulf decided to place a blockade on their neighbor Qatar. The reasons seem almost forgotten by now, in light of the treatment used on journalists and activists by those enforcing the embargo, but Qatar hardly missed a beat. Today, the country is thriving financially, has built great relationships with other countries as well as updated its inner infrastructure and, through the Doha Film Institute, is creating a cinematic bridge to unite and enlighten. All good things in my book.

At this year’s Festival de Cannes, DFI stood extra proud. It had supported not one, not two, not even three projects participating in the festival, but rather seven feature films! Including one, Elia Suleiman’s much anticipated personal feature ‘It Must Be Heaven’ which screened in the main Competition lineup. And walked away from the Croisette with the Special Jury Prize.

Among the DFI supported films, there was ‘Papicha’ directed by the Algerian Mounia Meddour whom I first met in Doha, Alaa Eddine Aljem’s ‘The Unknown Saint’, DFI grant recipient ‘Adam’ by Maryam Touzani and Qumra 2019 project ‘Abou Leila’ by Amin Sidi-Boumédiène. All screening in different sections of the grandest film festival in the world.

While at Qumra this year — the annual event held by the DFI as a platform to aid and connect filmmakers throughout all stages of their process as well as encourage a cultural dialogue through cinema — and in Cannes, I caught up with Suleiman, Fatma Hassan Alremaihi, their Chief Executive Officer and Hanaa Issa, the Institute’s Director of Strategy and Development and Deputy Director of Qumra. Those conversations once again proved that cinema holds the answers for communication and that is our only key to world peace.

Here you are in the midst of a Region-wide blockade and your cinema is flourishing, this organization is definitely on top of the world. Anything to add to that?

Fatma Alramaihi: It’s not just in cinema, yesterday we opened one of the biggest stadiums, which will play a central part in the 2020 World Cup. The rail stations are now open… It’s not just cinema, you see these achievements and we’re flourishing everywhere. It makes us proud and makes us know that we’re on the right track and doing the right thing. It doesn’t matter what else is happening, if your heart is in the right place, good things will happen.

Elia Suleiman, Hanaa Isssa and Fatma Hassan Alremaihi

I find that oftentimes obstacles will make people more motivated, to go forward. 

Hanaa Issa: I think the strategy has been set for a long time for Qatar and I think they just come true to that strategy and that vision. Investing in culture and education and infrastructure. 

What has Qumra as an event achieved in the last five years?

Alremaihi: I think for me, the best achievement for this event is putting the spotlight on Arab cinema more than ever. And being a place of discovery.

Issa: A lot of the programmers of the festivals and people from all over the world in the industry have now made it a reliable place where they come to discover new talent and new projects from the Region. And for us, to see so many projects being in Cannes or making it to Venice or finding distribution, that for us is the success of Qumra. That is our achievement. 

Politics has a way to intrude in cultural production all over the world and I’m wondering what you’re able to say about what is going on politically in the Region and how it has impacted what you wish to achieve?

Alremaihi: (turning to Suleiman) What did you call this Qumra, Elia?

Elia Suleiman: “Qumra with no borders” I said. But actually the only way to talk about blockades of all sorts is to make good cinema. The only way to go is to insist on poetry rather than come confrontationally and ideologically vis-a-vis. The only way to do it is to actually make the resistance universal, so not only about one blockade but universal blockades. Cinema possesses that universal language and I think I would discourage any kind of confrontational language. I get a certain pleasure to watching the images that can sort of reach out, to an identification to any kind of struggle as well. So yes, we feel it, I feel it but I’m probably the only person that is blankly talking about it sometimes, to the displeasure of my colleagues. It really gets me nuts and angry that this is happening, and I’m truly frustrated at myself for the dosage of anger I have. It’s really frustrating to watch what is going on. But we know that the answer is not anger, but to create a cinematic language and continue that way. 

Something that I noticed, and it reminds me of my own background — the more invasion, the more vibration. People start to party even more, there is more dancing on the tables when there is more oppression. I have a feeling that there is a more blunt want for more — more cinema, more dialogues, more self-expression. This I’ve noticed.

A still from ‘Adam’ by Maryam Touzani

Alremaihi: For us, the Gulf is one house. We have families in every country so it’s really sad that filmmakers and talent from there are now not having the chance to benefit. Because when we did the Doha Film Institute, we did Qumra, everything we do is for the Region. And for these talented filmmakers and writers and cinema people not to be involved is sad.

How long to you think the blockade will last?

Alremaihi: I don’t know, I never think like a politician in my head. But for us locals, we have moved beyond it and rarely think about it now. As a way to fight the blockade, we are trying to make ourselves better and have access to the world and have the world have more access to us.

Suleiman: That’s the paradox of the equation — that certain evil forces bring you to be more inspired. I’m sure I wouldn’t be Palestinian if Israel didn’t exist. I think identity is something also reactive. 

Which is why politicians use identity so much to their advantage. What I love is that as far as cinematic organizations, DFI does, and then talks about it. Whereas everyone talks about it first and then maybe does, possibly, almost does it. Or maybe not. There are no DFI press releases to announce everything.

Issa: Yeah, you’re right actually!

Alremaihi: From the beginning actually, we’ve set that strategy for ourselves.

Issa: And actually, the more we do the less we want to talk about it because we feel the work speaks for itself. There is no need… We’re not in a pavilion anymore, here in Cannes…

One of the reasons you’ve been successful is also word of mouth. Every filmmaker I’ve spoken to, who has been involved with DFI at some point of development of their project, has said “they are always a phone call away,” or they don’t withhold. They are the organization that will put the money first so other organizations can follow through. How do you achieve that organization-wide, with so many different personalities involved?

Issa: This was the strategy.

Alremaihi: And we have a great team that delivers also! We are not about big announcements but we are a family type of organization. When you are inside, we will always help and support you. And we have the right people in place, who are so passionate about what they do, they love these films and there filmmakers. They make it easy for us to be connected.

A still from ‘Abou Leila’ by Amin Sidi-Boumédiène

Issa: I remember in 2014, when Fatma became CEO. We had a presentation, and on the screen in the conference room, we wrote “Superior Filmmaker Relations” that was deliberately part of the strategy that we wanted to build very good relations with our filmmakers.

Alremaihi: Costumer service, because they [the filmmakers] are our customers!

Issa: We all need encouragement. Someone advised me once, that to be our best self, we should take a record of all the positive feedback that we received along the way. And it will remind you from time to time what you do best. And you can then build on that. I love that and I started doing that. I cut and paste it and keep it in a folder on my phone. I feel like it actually helps. 

Alremaihi: It’s similar to the films here in Cannes. Seven films here in Cannes is like someone taking your hand and saying “you’ve done a great job!” It makes us very proud. 

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