I’m a big admirer of all the great work the Doha Film Institute is doing. In just three short years, the Qatari organization has managed to fund incredible projects, create a hub for film education, production and showcase in the Gulf and in the process formed an environment where young audiences can learn to be educated moviegoers and where filmmakers can learn to be worthwhile voices in a global cinematic world. They have also managed to create bridges of culture around the world, through co-productions and by showcasing the films funded by Doha Film Institute in other international film festival.
At the recent Abu Dhabi Film Festival, another personal favorite for its welcoming attitude towards the media and other film organizations, I had the chance to catch up with Fatma Al Remaihi, the Festival Director of the upcoming Ajyal Youth Film Festival. The first edition of this wonderfully important festival for young audiences will be held in Doha from November 26th through the 30th. The theme for this inaugural event will be ‘Anime’, with a line-up of 65 films from 30 nations, promising to bring the best of filmmaking to Qatar. Spread over five days, the Cultural Village Katara will host the ‘Doha Film Experience,’ ‘Family Weekend,’ the ‘Otaku Exhibition’ and ‘The Sandbox,’ in addition to an enriching array of workshops and screenings.
But the Ajyal Youth Film Festival won’t be all about cartoons and children’s stories, not the typical ones anyway. It will include such adult-beloved gems as Annemarie Jacir’s masterpiece When I Saw You, Wajma: An Afghan Love Story which made waves at Sundance and the critically acclaimed Kauwboy, last year’s Dutch entry to the Foreign Language Oscar race. And the festival will be for children, by children, as jurors participating in their own age-appropriate juries. Part of the ‘Doha Film Experience’, the competitions will feature 29 films competing in the ‘Mohaq’, ‘Hilal’ and ‘Bader’ sections of the festival. Named after the cycles of the moon, the ‘New Moon’ has jurors from ages 8 to 12, ‘Crescent’ deals with those aged 13 to 17 and ‘Full Moon’ rounds it all out for the 18 to 21 age range. While the ‘Bariq’ (Sparkle) series is the family friendly and out-of-competition segment for the youngest viewers, ages 4 to 7.
Ever a fresh voice, combining a great knowledge of cinema with her own personal parenting experience, Al Remaihi explained the festival and shed light on the great initiatives and wonderful efforts that the Doha Film Institute has been pioneering in creating within Qatar, the repercussions of which have been thankfully felt all around the world’s cinematic communities. There isn’t a single filmmaker from the region, the Middle East, the Arab world and beyond, who doesn’t speak of this institution with great pride and admiration.
When we met in Cannes earlier this year, Ajyal Youth Film Festival was a concept but now it’s a really exciting reality. Everyone I interview these days points to Doha Film Institute as the place that gets it right. I think the reason why you get it right is exactly the reasoning behind your festival, you are aiming to educate the young to be both audiences and filmmakers. Can you elaborate?
Fatma Al Remaihi: I think the festival is very important because of its focus, which is youth. They are the most important segment of the community, they are our future, our aspirations, and everything we want to do right. It makes sense to have a festival dedicated to them, focused on them and their issues. As a mother, for me I talk selfishly, because I think I’m benefiting from it as a mother, my children are benefiting for their future, it’s their way to learn something new, about cinema, how they can translate it into their lives. And I think it’s something unique to children’s films that while watching children’s films all the kids in the world are learning from it. Because they all have the same basic issues.
Right now, the world is unfortunately divided, this idea of ‘the Other’ — the west sees this part of the world as ‘the Other’, this part of the world views the west as being ‘the Other’, created mostly by the media. How do you think a festival like Ajyal will help in removing these barriers?
Al Remaihi: That is exactly what we are trying to do. When we see these films, I see a film from Holland and I’m going through the same issue in my school that this kid is going through, it makes me feel closer to them, it doesn’t make me feel alienated or them alienated from us, it makes me feel we are closer together. As long as we see that we all share the same problems the same hopes the same dreams and everything, it makes us a closer community. This is what we want to do. And when we bring these international jurors from around the globe, they all share together the same experience, so you’re starting from a very young age with these young men and women getting them to learn that this girl from France or this girl from Italy or this girl from Holland is the same person like me. She likes the same films she likes the same cartoons, the same shoes, the same t-shirts, we are all the same. It makes us a closer community and this what we want our kids to be exposed to also.
Will you offer workshops during the festival?
Al Remaihi: Definitely, for our jurors they have their own specific program and workshops, panels and ‘Q & A’s and also for families, workshops and activities all related to film and media, that’s why we call it the Ajyal studio, so everything will be related to media and film and we’ll also have specific activities and workshops about the theme of anime, Japanese animation.
And every year it will be a different theme. To tell you the truth when we decided on the theme we didn’t realize the impact it would have with people. We discovered a huge community of those who call themselves ‘Otaku’. If you are really enthusiastic and love anime you are an Otaku.
We have an anime exhibit which will be the ‘Otaku Exhibition’, similar to a Comic-Con, which will be mostly regional artists displaying their work. It’s amazing that we have these people inspired by anime. Some of them actually speak Japanese, it’s that intense. That’s why they are Otaku and we’re not.
You’ve now been with the Doha Film Institute for a while, how has the impact of cinema changed the culture of Qatar, in a cinematic way? Maybe ten years ago a daughter coming to a father saying “I want to be an actress” would have been frowned upon…
Al Remaihi: Even in Italy after 43 years, our friends in Giffoni will tell you there are still so many parents who will not approve of this. So it’s not something that we will see happening in a day, it will take its time. The scene is changing there is more interest in films and in media in general but as any other community will tell you, even in Canada I was surprised to hear they have the same challenges we have in Doha. That just tells me how close we are and how much we share.