The Doha Film Institute And Its Roles And Function: A Conversation With Al Remaihi & Hanna Issa
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
By: Amir Ganjavie
In November 2019, I had the opportunity to travel to Doha to participate in the Doha Film Institute’s annual Ajyal Film Festival, which focuses on international youth cinema. I’ve attended several film festivals in recent years and have experienced the urban spaces and structures in which they take place. The interesting thing about Ajyal that distinguished it from other festivals was its friendly atmosphere. It was held at Katara Cultural Village, which has a beautiful landscape overlooking the sea, excellent access to a variety of seafood, and a pleasant exposure to the sunlight in November.
Ajyal’s name is the Arabic word for “generations” since it is a festival for the youth, with a jury made up of young men and women from 8 to 21 years old. Around 550 of these young people come together for seven days to watch films and talk to filmmakers and performers while also participating in workshops and other film-related activities and then voting for the best films at the end of the festival. The festival also features some public screenings and different exhibitions but it’s mainly focused on the international group of youths who watch films from all over the world, all of which are shown in their original languages and subtitled in Arabic or English.
Unlike major film festivals that make it difficult and bureaucratic to meet the filmmakers in person, the atmosphere at Ajyal is friendly and makes it possible for people from different backgrounds to meet one another no matter what social class or country they come from. All of this interaction takes place within a beautiful setting that features breathtaking local architecture with Arabic designs and streams of flowing water.
Seven years have passed since the Ajyal Film Festival was established and it is evident that the organizers have done their best to develop this local festival into a grand international experience. This could not have been possible without support from the Doha Film Institute, which is the festival’s presenting sponsor. The institute has played a significant role in supporting films and helping them to be featured at prestigious festivals in recent year. Numerous films that were made with its support have been featured in major festivals and seen by an international audience, opportunity that they otherwise may not have had. The institute has two funding cycles that open in January and June each year and which are reserved for filmmakers who are working on their first or second films. The institute has also made it possible for great filmmakers to work in partnership, with projects such as films by Asghar Farhadi or Nuri Bilge Ceylan being produced with its support. Through this process, the Doha Film Institute has financed films without any prejudice and has always encourage films which present new, unique visions and deconstruct and reconstruct existing structures, efforts which must be valued and praised. I had the opportunity to talk with Fatima Al Ramaihi and Hanna Issa from the institute and we discussed how the institute was founded, its vision, its development, and the films that it has financed and produced.
Amir Ganjavie, Phoenix Journal (PJ): What are your roles in the Doha Film Institute?
Fatima Al Remaihi (FR): I’m the CEO.
Hanaa Issa (HI): I’m the director of film funding and programs.
PJ: Can you say a little bit about your institution and the way that it works?
FR: The Doha Film Institute was established in 2010 as a non-political government organization and it’s chaired by Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani. Our main objective is to pave the way for a film industry in Qatar and the region. We’ve been supporting the industry and the region with different programs covering things like funding, education, training, and development. We also do a lot of productions in Qatar and we have an annual youth film festival in late November named Ajyal and early December as well as an annual industry event called Qumra, which happens in March.
HI: We have different funding programs to support filmmakers, mainly in the Arab region, and we also support international filmmakers in post-production. We also co-finance and co-produce films like Nuri’s film this year and Nadine Labaki’s film that’s in the competition. Then we also have the Qatari Film Fund, which is very focused on supporting local production and local talent, like Qatari writers and directors who are working on both short films and features. We also support filmmakers in non-financial ways through various training and development programs, labs, and film screenings. We also program various cinemas in Qatar and the festival that Fatima mentioned.
PJ: What is the position of your funding or your institution in the region?
HI: We’re not the only ones.
FR: A lot of filmmakers will tell you we’re the main one in the region because we’ve been consistent and have been supporting many, many films from the region. We are definitely one of the main funds since there aren’t many funds in the region.
HI: There’s AFAC, which is a smaller fund in Beirut, in Lebanon, but there are not a lot sources of money. There are the national funds in places like Tunisia, Morocco, and other places in North Africa, though a lot of them have close down recently. That’s why we focus on Arabs as the minority.
PJ: Is your source of funding public or private?
HI: We’re a government-funded institute but the projects themselves fundraise from other sources.
PJ: Does the amount of support for each filmmaker depend on their projects? And is there a limit to how much that you help?
HI: There are criteria for every stage of the production that they are applying for, whether it’s development, production, or post-production, as well as the type of film, like whether it’s a documentary or fiction or a short or a feature. There are brackets of funding that are available but then there is a different committee like a jury that meets and selects the projects because we receive hundreds of applications. Depending on the project, there’s a stage for reviewing their financing and their budget and then the amount that we will give to them is determined.
PJ: Are there deadlines each year for submitting something to the committee?
FR: There are two cycles with one in the fall one in the spring. We just announced yesterday the selection of the spring cycle, and the fall one opens in July. So far, we have supported more than four hundred films over the course of six years.
PJ: You said that you mostly support films from the region but it seems like that’s not exclusive. So, for example, American filmmakers who want to produce a film in the region can apply for support?
FR: Yes, if they are attached to an Arab filmmaker then they can participate in the development and production. Our post-production support is open for all first-time and second-time filmmakers – not just Arabs.
PJ: Are filmmakers required to shoot their films in Qatar?
FR: No, it’s not a condition.
PJ: Are there other guidelines that they need to follow?
FR: No, we’re always looking for original stories, good stories, but our main criteria are to be a first-time or second-time filmmaker with something innovative to say.
HI: We are looking for fresh stories, creative talent, and filmmakers who are pushing the boundaries of form and content.
PJ: You said that the directors need to be making their first or second film but what about Nuri Bilge Ceylan?
FR: No, Nuri is for finance but I’m talking about the grants. We have the co-finance section where we can work with people like Nuri, Nadine Labaki, and Salma Hayek, who we worked with on Khalil Jibran’s The Prophet. Similarly, we co-financed Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. With co-financing we go with a bigger percentage of the equity investment so it’s a different formula than for the grants.
PJ: Can you say little bit about the 400 films that you’ve partially supported?
FR: Eighty percent are from the MENA region and lot have gone to big festivals
PJ: Is some of your funding more open to minorities like, for example, female filmmakers?
FR: We don’t have quotas. For us, Arabs are the minority but in every funding cycle you will see a lot of women. For example, yesterday we announced a group in which 14 out of the 34 films are being made by women filmmakers.
PJ: There’s no other specification?
FR: There is no quota or any other specifications. Even when someone comes to our workshops they come with their projects and their ideas. We only help them to make it and teach them the best way and give them the equipment and everything but we don’t control them.
PJ: You said that there are some criteria for funding and that you look for themes that push the boundaries. What exactly do you mean by “pushing the boundaries” in the concept, the form, and the content?
HI: We want to see fresh, original, creative stories. We want to support good films and great talents. For example, someone like Ely Dagher has been a filmmaker for eleven years. He won the Palme D’Or three years ago for his short film called Waves 98.
FR: We’ve supported films like Mustang from Turkey, which went to the Oscars, and Theeb from Jordan, which also went to the Oscars. When you see our portfolio of films you will see that it’s anything and everything.
PJ: There are concerns that more and more festivals in the Arab regions getting shut down. Is this something that might happen to you?
FR: I don’t think that people should generalize anything because that’s not fair to everyone else. We’re been doing great, we’re established all of our programs, and we have a great position in the industry as a whole. We’re getting stronger. Now we are opening up our grants to television and web series. I don’t think that we should generalize about anything in the region.
PJ: You said that you are now planning to develop the next steps for your institution. Can you say a little bit about the trajectory?
FR: We had to do things step by step, but now we’ve established this ecosystem that reflects everything that we do, including funding, production, training, development, exhibition, and distribution. Filmmakers can come at any point, and we help them with their films but it took us years to perfect this ecosystem.
PJ: What goal are you hoping to reach?
FR: Well, we want to pave the way for a sustainable film industry in Qatar first and then in the region overall. Now, our next success would be to have more feature films from Qatar. We’re developing a lot of them now as we speak and hopefully we’ll see more productions there.
PJ: Your recent interest in the television production is an example of this?
FR: So we have expanded our grants program to now include developing and producing television and web series. Soon we will have everything on the website, like the criteria and the conditions. We thought that this is the next step for us because TV is very popular and now TV productions are bigger and better than ever. We think that it’s important to support the many filmmakers who are now going into TV to give them a chance to tell their stories in another way.
PJ: Speaking of equipment, can filmmakers use your funding for things like renting it?
PJ: Do you have facilities like laboratories that they can use?
FR: Yes, we have post-production facilities and a huge store of different types of equipment. We support not just small filmmakers but also produce big projects in Qatar as well as doing work for other entities in the country that are looking to do more things related to film and media.
PJ: You also mentioned the fact that you are now becoming more interested in distribution. Can you say more about that?
FR: With regard to distribution, what I mean is that we support the films that we make. For example, with young Qatari filmmakers, we not only help them to make their films but also teach them how to market those films and take them films to different festivals.
HI: We connect them to distributors.
FR: Yes, we connect them to distributors and sales agents.
HI: But we’re not the distributors ourselves.
FR: No, we are not the distributor but we help them and facilitate for them.
PJ: What is Quamra’s event?
FR: Qumra is our industry event. Sometimes the films that we support with either grants or our educational programs need more than financial support so every year we choose around 30 projects, whether they are in development or post-production, and we bring them to Doha for six days. We bring around a hundred film professionals from around the world who work at film funds or as programmers, festival organizers, sales agents, and writers so they can either help the participants with their projects or discover them. We have master classes every day, and we’ve had amazing lists of masters, people like Azmad Fajadi, Nuri, James Shamus, Tilda Swinton, and Andrey Zvyagintsev. It’s an amazing selection of five or six masters and every day they give a master class and work with specific filmmakers on their projects. We also screen a few films during Qumra.
HI: There is a lot of really great young talent and we have basically made DFI in to a place where people come to discover new talents. This is what Fatima was saying about Qumra. This is where people from the industry and buyers and sales agents and programmers and people like Netflix and Amazon will come to discover the new talent from the region.
PJ: You mentioned your interest in organizing the exhibition, is it like a retrospective on the filmmaker?
FR: Yes, during the year we have thematic screenings. Sometimes we focus on something like contemporary cinema, or do retrospectives, or focus on a country like Russia, for example, which we’re doing this year. We also exhibit a lot of films during our festival.
PJ: So these exhibitions can be run at any time?
FR: Yes, at different times.
HI: There are two different cinemas that we collaborate with. For example, if we program something focused on arthouse cinema then we also program contemporary releases from the Arab world, especially a lot of the films that we supported, and we basically give them a platform for a theatrical release in Qatar.