Doha held the fifth Ajyal Youth Film Festival from Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, as the country continues to face sanctions from its neighbors. Ajyal is by now an already well-established festival, and the sanctions did not stop filmmakers from around the world from coming to town to watch films and speak to the jurors and filmmakers in the beautifully designed Katara Cultural Village.
The Ajyal Film Festival was inspired by another youth film festival in Giffoni, Italy, which has been running for almost 50 years, and the Italian partners were out in force. The international, young jurors in both festivals come from different age groups, many accompanied by their parents. There are three categories for jurors, all named after the phases of the moon, 8 to 12 (Mohaq), 12 to 17 (Hilal) and 18 to 21 (Bader). Accordingly, the storylines of the films chosen for the festival vary as to how much these young people can deal with adult issues. Journalists who have been following both Giffoni and Ajyal point out - and I can attest to this - that these youth film festivals end up gathering together very sad films to do with war, disease and dysfunctional families.
Seeing the films at Ajyal, too, one understands once more how children and young people bear the brunt of adults' follies. We often underestimate how perceptive children are about misfortunes. Directors and actors who have had audiences with the jurors are amazed at the depth of questions that the jurors asked them. According to Doha Film Institute Director Fatma al-Remaihi, some of the jurors are veterans of the festival coming back in successive years. She also said that some jurors have gone on to make their own short films.
The festival has a section called Made in Qatar, which highlights the work of Qataris and those who live in Qatar, a phrase that officials and artists speaking at events have reiterated throughout the festival and that tells of a sense of solidarity, an "asabiyah," if you will. The country's population being less than 20 percent Qatari, people rely on an immigrant workforce and, indeed, creative talent to ensure good standards of living. Accordingly, the Made in Qatar section reflects this diversity both in terms of directors and subject matter such as the divide between rich Qataris and their immigrant servants - a theme explored in the film "Elevate" - and immigrant artisans who have made Qatar their home, explore in the film 'Khurshid'. The one I liked most, which received the Special Jury Documentary/Experimental Award, was "I Have Been Watching You All Along" in which a young woman walks around and goes through reels of film in an abandoned cinema in Doha, with superimposed images from black and white Arab and European films. It is a film that fittingly searches for the origins of the moving image in this young country.
One of the events that ran alongside the film festival at the Katara Cultural Village was the LeBlockade Exhibition. The exhibition consists of cartoon posters and short videos that lampoon Saudi sanctions on Qatar. One of the short videos is shot in three installments, with a shy man trying to film a "süt" (Turkish for milk) video for his YouTube channel. That Qatar had to import milk from Turkey is touched on in a couple of other videos and posters. In her conversation with journalists, al-Remaihi also explained how the sanctions have given a further sense of purpose to Qataris, both locals and immigrants who have made a home there. The sanctions may well become a foundational moment for what being a Qatari will mean in the future. Underlining their goal of being united in themselves, al-Remaihi added that she still considers the whole of the Gulf region as one family, which is literally the case, as members of one family are often dispersed between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Of course, Iran is just on the other side of the water and was represented at the festival with two films. One was "Disappearance," of the usual characters-in-a-hopeless-situation genre, and the other was by renowned visual artist Shirin Neshat. When she came on stage to introduce her film, "Looking for Oum Kulthum," there was great applause, and she said what Qataris were hoping to hear - that now, in the Gulf ridden with tensions, it is more important than ever to share stories. She then went on to apologize for those who might expect a biopic on Oum Kulthum. However, as she explained, it is a film about the difficulties an Iranian faces trying to make a film about an Arab icon who, nevertheless, unites all nations in the region.
It was interesting to see the variety of films that have the Doha Film Institute in their credits, from Europe to Africa, and it is these African films that fascinated me the most as I very rarely get to see films from that continent. The short film, "All of Us," set in Kenya, was recommended to me by a Lebanese journalist who spent her days at the festival film library watching the films on a small screen rather than at the public or press screenings, as she said: "This allows me to rewind and forward as I like." The film, which brought me to tears, won the Bader prize. Equally moving was the documentary "Liyana" about orphans and storytelling in Swaziland. The first film I have watched set in Burkina Faso, "Wallay," was a sweet coming-of-age story that warmed the heart.
Added to the press screenings, public screenings and the film library were open-air screenings on the esplanade in Katara. They showed a film each night - screenings starting with an image of two parched men on camels in the desert that turned out to be a public service video about preserving water. I managed to see two of these films, the 2014 Jordanian production "Theeb," about Bedouin loyalties in the Hejaz, and "Walls," about the various walls dividing peoples and regions in the world. In a small Arab country that is under blockade, both resonated with the politics of the place. However, with the beautiful sea breeze from the Gulf as we sat on the deckchairs, and families comfortably coming in and out of the screening area, the festival seemed to have accomplished its purpose of giving cultural vitality to the town at a time of estrangement from its neighbors.
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