Art & Culture

Doha Film Institute

When Film Becomes Life

With a deep passion for promoting one of the most appealing forms of artistic expression, the Doha Film Institute (DFI), established in 2010, firmly believes in the power of film to appeal to the heart and to broaden the mind.  Very few people can watch a film and remain completely unchanged.  Films can touch an audience in a myriad of ways.  By developing a theme or plot that appeals to an individual’s emotion, and utilizing the latest technology and special effects to stimulate the imagination, filmmakers can create entertainment that is both enjoyable and meaningful.  With this in mind, DFI is dedicated to the goal of building a successful film industry in Qatar while encouraging the community to become cinema lovers through film appreciation and education.  With a motto that reflects the sentiment that “Film is Life,” DFI aspires to bring the best of world cinema to Qatar and to tirelessly nurture a blossoming local film industry. 
DFI is the brainchild of a young Qatari lady; Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.  Today, she is assisted by a highly talented DFI Board that includes Vice-Chair, H.E. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Fahad Al-Thani; Board Member, H.E. Dr. Hassan Al-Nimah; Board Member, Mr. Mansoor Ibrahim Al-Mahmoud; Festival Board Member, H.E. Sheikh Jabor Bin Yousuf Al Thani; and Executive Director, Amanda Palmer.
Palmer explains, “From the very beginning, Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa had a vision that always guided us. It’s amazing to be part of something that was conceived with a clear vision, coupled with the capability and resources to empower it.” According to Palmer, “H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa is overwhelmingly humble, and refuses to take credit for the project; insisting that DFI is the vision of Qatar and of His Highness the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.”  
Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa believes that building a strong film industry is very important to the Arab world.  “I think the most democratic medium for communication today is film and the visual arts.  Both empower people in ways that nothing else can,” she said.  “In educating young people on ways to effectively use film to communicate, they can tell their own stories.   In the past we would watch a lot of films relating to the Arab world, but they were largely made by non-Arabs, so it was often an interpreted version of what was really happening, and a translation of their take on our culture. Now is the time for us to provide opportunities to Arab filmmakers – filmmakers from the region and the Arabic-speaking world – to tell their own stories in their own languages.  For me, this is the most important way we can positively influence and empower the people and, more specifically, the youth of this region.”  
A well-traveled T.V. broadcaster, Palmer found herself a committed partner in this community-changing new venture. “I have always been passionate about storytelling in any form.  I come from an art background, so this is very close to my heart. I love the fact that this is a young country, and this is a young company.  Everyone cares about and believes in what they are doing,” she smiled. 
Soaring Success
DFI has established a number of strategic cultural partnerships with leading local and international organizations, including Katara Cultural Village Foundation, Tribeca Enterprises, the World Cinema Foundation, Maisha Film Labs and the Giffoni Film Festival.
Located at Qatar’s new cultural hub, Katara Cultural Village Foundation, DFI has many initiatives including year-round education programs, film screening, the annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF), and funding film and television productions.
DFI first ventured into international production earlier this year with the Arabian epic film Black Gold, alongside Quinta Communications.  Filmed jointly in Tunisia and Qatar, and directed by French producer and director Jean-Jacques Annaud, Black Gold will have its world premiere as the opening night film at this year’s DTFF which will take place from October 25 – 29, 2011.
More recently, DFI partnered with filmmaker Mira Nair on a new international production for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, making it the second major international production to receive financing from DFI.  Shooting of the film will take place in Atlanta, New York, Lahore, Delhi and Istanbul.
Through the success of DFI and its Doha Tribeca Film Festival, the vision for a thriving Qatari film industry has been strongly embraced by the local community, and has gained the support of many international stars and filmmakers.  DFI has grown to include 98 full-time employees who work year-round to support its various programs.  The number expands to reach 400 full-time employees and a whopping 1100 volunteers, all of whom will be involved in the production of this year’s film festival.  DFI has already created phenomenal change in Qatar, both socially and culturally, by encouraging and actively supporting young women to pursue careers in film.  “When I came here in 2009, there wasn’t a single Qatari woman who had studied film.  By the end of 2010, 56 women had begun to study film.  Our education program has really been successful in reaching the young women of Qatar and stimulating their interest in this fascinating field,” said Palmer. 
While the idea of becoming an internationally famous film institute is nothing short of dazzling, DFI has its sights set on developing success at home first.  “To be internationally successful, you have to be locally successful.  International visitors and cinematographers who come here want to see the excitement and involvement of the local community.  If the community doesn’t show up, then they question why they should come,” affirms Palmer. 
Palmer attributes the success of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival to its linkage with DFI, which stimulates passion about film locally, and nurtures the potential of the up-and-coming young Qataris to pursue film.  In turn, this will shape the future of the film industry at home.  “DFI is much more than just the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.  We do more than just a five-day event.  The festival is ultimately a celebration of everything that we do.  Not only do we showcase an excellent selection of international films, we also have filmmakers coming out and engaging with local audiences,” she explained.
The Doha Tribeca Film Festival offers amazing international cinema while bringing fantastic filmmakers to Qatar to inspire local audiences.  Many have returned time and again, helping the institute with its educational programs and offering their support. Acclaimed stars and film producers have also taken a keen interest in the festival, and play a significant role in promoting the event abroad. 
“We have had stars like Salma Hayek, who is a very influential actress and film producer, come to Qatar and proudly talk about her Lebanese roots and her genuine interest in this region. When she returns to Hollywood, she will carry with her a positive message of the festival, the talent and enthusiasm she has seen and an opinion that is respected.  This will help clarify misconceptions that sometimes exist about this part of the world,” said Palmer. 
Community Loving
Another defining factor that sets DTFF apart from other film festivals around the world is that it has education as a core element.  DFI creates an educational syllabus to ensure that young people who have aspirations about film are also involved.  The festival even includes a family day where children as young as eight years old engage in activities that teach them about film appreciation.  Simply put, DTFF is an event that is seriously dedicated to creating a community experience for all by bringing thousands of people together to understand and appreciate film.
The festival also sends an important message to people and goes to great lengths to break down language barriers as everything at DTFF is presented in both Arabic and English.  “This year we developed a Community Outreach department entirely committed to working with the local community and to making the festival appealing for everyone.  We have ladies’ screening and we provide ratings allowing people to know that the context and the environment are culturally appropriate,” explained Palmer. 
DFI focuses tremendously on promoting Arab cinema and film production.  “Statistics show that there isn’t enough Arab support for Arabic films.  When Arabs go to the movies, the majority of the times they choose to watch a Hollywood film rather than an Arabic film,” said Palmer.  “We therefore want to mentor and discover new talent in order to create enthusiasm and greater interest.  This is very much one of the primary reasons why we have the Arab Film Competition during the festival. Following last year’s success we have expanded that competition to also include documentaries.” 
The Journey Ahead
This year’s Doha Tribeca Film Festival promises to be very special, and the opening film, the homegrown movie Black Gold, is an exciting event in itself.  “I speak collectively when I tell you that this organization is thrilled to be in its third year and to be bringing to the world a movie that was filmed right here in Qatar.  Black Gold will have its world premiere at the opening night of the festival.  This movie has the blood, sweat and tears of many people here in Qatar; many of whom are in this office.  These people ensured that the movie production went forward despite some incredible challenges, and we are very proud of this achievement!” said Palmer. 
The movie Where Do We Go Now? by Lebanese actress/director Nadine Labaki is another film that is dear to DFI.  The film premiered earlier in the year at the Cannes Film Festival, and will also be showcased during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. “It is a beautiful comedy, but it also has an incredibly important message about inter-religious harmony; and Nadine will be here.  It’s exciting to bring her here!” she gushed.  
With Qatar developing in leaps and bounds, the film industry is poised to take off as well.  When asked what her hopes are for the future, Palmer can only smile and wish for the continued growth of the Doha Film Institute.  “I would like our education programs to continue to grow.  I would also love to see some young graduates in film and watch them get jobs in the industry as we move to the future, and to see more films coming out of DFI.  I would love to be part of that,” she said. 
With its mission to discover, encourage and support rising talent, DFI has penetrated the hearts of Qatar’s youth and elders alike. Bringing people together in a community that can be strengthened by new and liberating forms of artistic expression, Qatar’s budding film industry is well on its way to paving its path into a bright and exciting future!
Emilio Pucci 2019
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