Ajyal Film Festival, 2019

In Qatar, Thursday evenings are more relaxed than in most parts of the world. Fridays and Saturdays are weekly holidays. So families were out in the park adjoining the Museum of Islamic Art having a good time. The promenade was dotted with palm trees, while futuristic buildings adorned the Doha skyline on the other side of the sea. I saw a couple of families having their little picnics in makeshift plastic tables. The rest occupied the deckchairs arranged in front of a screen that had been pitched in the middle of the park. A bunch of Qatari shorts were going to be shown as part of the “Cinema Under the Stars” programme of the seventh edition of Ajyal Film Festival, which ran from 18-23 November. 

The first film, Al-Johara, was surprisingly light and fun for a short film — a contemporary take on the Cinderella tale, in which the poor little girl looks about as poor as a Qatari can. Not all the seats were taken.

The family that sat one seat away from me was being particularly noisy, having a difficult time managing their son, who ran up and down the park and talked loudly. I gestured at the father as politely as I could. A minute later, he offered me coffee that they had brought in a flask. Possibly Indians, who, by the way, occupy 70 percent of Qatar’s population, he said they had to explain the film to their son as he didn’t know Arabic and couldn’t follow the subtitles. They had come expecting something like last year’s edition, when they had watched the Hollywood animation Moana. He made his son sit next to me, probably as a punishment — and it seemed to work. 

The next film was a short documentary about a retired policeman who has transformed his fetish for installing his cars with trinkets and accessories into something of an art form. A familiar face with the denizens of Doha, he drives through the city like a king, with a reggae vibe about him. The one after that was a meditative exploration of the life cycle of date palms. And the one after about a girl, her grandfather and a pair of goldfish: All fiercely local stories made with impressive production value. 

I had to leave midway to rush to Festival City, a shopping mall about a twenty minute drive away, to make it on time for Gitanjali Rao’s Bombay Rose, a beautiful, melancholy animation film with images that seem as though they’ve been plucked from dreams, and an equally dreamy soundtrack — an oddity in a multiplex that was playing a dozen Hollywood blockbusters such as Frozen 2 and Ford vs Ferrari on other screens. 

Bombay Rose, made by the Mumbai-based Rao, had got its first funding from the Doha Film Institute (DFI) — a non-profit organisation set up in 2010 by the Government of Qatar, which funds more than 60 films every year.

The DFI’s primary objective is to build a film industry in Qatar and support filmmakers from cinematically underrepresented regions in the Arab world, with grants and year-round programs that include sound, camera and production labs. But it also extends its support to filmmakers from other parts of the world, depending on such factors as the cultural relevance of the project, or if they are first or second-time filmmakers. The DFI has backed Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman in the past.

Ajyal Film Festival, 2019
Organised by the Doha Film Institute, the Ajyal Film Festival is aimed at children and young adults.

Ajyal—meaning ‘generations’ in Arabic—is an important step in that process because it recognises that educating children and exposing them to the best of world cinema are the building blocks for a robust film culture.

The titles playing at the Ajyal are age-appropriate, steering clear from sex and violence, but according to Fatma Al Remaihi, the Chief Executive Officer of DFI, the festival has been pushing the boundaries little by little. She cited the example of For Sama, the devastating documentary on Syria, which the 18-21 age group of jurors voted as the Best Feature Film. The other two age-groups of jurors are between 8-12 and 13-17. Of the 450 young jurors this year, 48 were flown in from different parts of the world, from India to Armenia, to Italy to Bosnia Herzegovina. As with every edition of Ajyal, the young jurors chose the winners of the Jury Competition awards. (The audience choice award went to the Sudanese film You Will Die At Twenty). 

Al Remaihi said that there is an increasing interest among the young people in Qatar about the festival, with more requests to be a part of the jury than they could accept. She recalled how watching the Brazilian documentary Waste Land, followed by a Q & A with the director, at Berlin film festival in 2010, changed her life.

Al Remaihi said that there is an increasing interest among the young people in Qatar about the festival, with more requests to be a part of the jury than they could accept. She recalled how watching the Brazilian documentary Waste Land, followed by a Q & A with the director, at Berlin film festival in 2010, changed her life. “I watched that film when I was 15. Kids now get to watch independent cinema from everywhere from the age of 8. They get to broaden they horizon from early on,” she said at a press briefing held at the luxurious St Regis hotel, where we were put up. 

A few minutes away from the hotel, the Katara Cultural Village — a large waterfront area with restaurants and cafes, a museum, an amphitheatre, interconnected streets, and a private beach — served as the festival venue. There are golf carts to give you a ride from one part of Katara to another. During the day, it cuts a striking contrast with the blue of the sea. At night, it’s softly lit, the fragrance of the sheesha never too far. Only one part of the village glowed with blue neon lights: a section of the festival dedicated to comic book fandom and gaming, which hosted a cosplay and screened a number of cult Disney and Anime classics.

Sorry We Missed You
Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You is one of the films that played at this year’s festival.

The festival, funded by the State, didn’t host big-ticket names — except perhaps Elia Suleiman, the Palestinian auteur, whose It Must Be Heaven was the film of the opening night. (Qumra — a grown up version of the festival — is more high profile, where Farhadi and Nuri Bilge Ceylan have conducted masterclasses). But there were small joys to be had in sharing the vehicle back from the screening venue to the hotel with a filmmaker whose film you’ve just watched, and loved; or finding Rhys Stone, the young actor who plays the sullen teenager in Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, loitering in the hotel lobby. 

A relatively young nation, which discovered its offshore oil resources in 1970, transforming itself into one of the richest countries in the world, Qatar doesn’t quite have a film culture that they can call their own. But they have the money and the intent. The country’s efforts to establish itself as a new hub of art and culture isn’t restricted to cinema alone.

Take for instance, the National Museum of Qatar. Also known as the ‘desert rose’, it looks like massive white discs interconnected at complex angles. Designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Jean Nouvel, its shape draws inspiration from the flower-like natural formations that are born out of water, wind and pressure in the deserts. After a 10-year long wait, when the $610-million was unveiled earlier this year in March, it hosted celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Naomi Campbell and Victoria Beckham. During my stay there, Shakira and Forest Whitaker was in Doha to attend a summit organised by the Government. And if rumours were to be believed, Brad Pitt was in the city for a shoot.

But the country is gearing up for its biggest show yet — when it hosts the FIFA World Cup in 2022. 

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