It’s a moment of great pride, and understandably so, for Qatari film producer-director Hafiz Ali Ali and the emerging wave of talented Qatari filmmakers. Ali’s adventure-packed animated feature The Search for the Star Pearl is one of the three shortlisted projects that are set to win the prestigious IWC Filmmaker Award this year.
The IWC Filmmaker Award is held annually during the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), an internationally renowned Film Festival that sees numerous cinema-goers, actors, directors, producers, writers and industry experts descend on Dubai to feast on some of the finest cinema from around the world.
The Award itself consists of a grant of US$ 100,000, and an IWC timepiece that is bestowed upon one filmmaker from the region picked by a jury of film experts who go through projects by some of the Gulf’s most prominent and up-and-coming filmmakers. The winner will be announced at the IWC gala event at the 13th edition of DIFF, next month.
On the back of the success of his previous films — The Oryx Return (2007) and Scents and Shadows (2010) have been selected for many international film festivals and won several awards — Ali now brings to us the dramatic story of an adventurous group of teenage friends who set out “on an enchanting voyage in search of a legendary pearl”.
The film follows Ali ibn Hamad, a brave, 17-year-old Qatari boy, who sails the unknown seas with his friends, the fun-loving Belal and science-minded Rashid, hoping to find the Star Pearl of Abu Derya. The legendary pearl is reputed to be the most valuable gem on Earth, but its hiding place is protected by a terrifying demon.
The synopsis explains that Ali’s journey takes him across the Gulf to the shores of India and the South China Sea, where he and his friends battle pirates, an evil wizard and mythological creatures from antiquity. The adventure challenges their wits, their lives and — most importantly — their hearts when they face the Dragon King, the monstrous guardian of the priceless treasure.
While still in school, Hafiz Ali Ali began his creative endeavours in theatre. He has participated in numerous local and regional festivals and appeared in several television series. Having dabbled in everything from directing several television shows and documentary films for Qatar TV and Al Jazeera Children’s Channel, to working for the Qatar Foundation as Arts Programme Manager, Ali has also been Heritage Houses Manager for Msheireb Museums — he was recently appointed Director of Msheireb Museums.
The esteemed IWC award’s main aim is to support the region’s budding film industry and contribute to the development of Arab filmmaking by taking ambitious local film projects to the next level put Arab cinema on the international map. Ali believes his film will make the cut. Community caught up with him for a chat.
It must be quite a privilege to have your project shortlisted for the esteemed IWC Filmmaker Award. How important do you feel this is for you and for Qatar?
I am really honoured to be shortlisted for the IWC award and happy to see the jury’s appreciation for the film, on which I have worked many years, battling with the story to make it better. It is very important for me, personally, and for the fellow artistes from Qatar to be shortlisted, and hopefully win the award, and to have worked on this project. I believe this will open a new door for Qatari filmmakers, and encourage them to work on their stories and deliver powerful scripts.
Tell us how you came up with this story of an adventurous group of teenage friends setting out on a voyage in search of a legendary pearl.
When I was a kid, I was very attached to my grandfather who used to tell me stories and fairy tales. Most of the stories had such fantasy or mythological characters set in the sea or in the desert. After studying the art of cinema and filmmaking, I decided to translate my childhood fantasies onto the big screen. The sea has played a big part in our economy and culture, and I thought it would be interesting to take the sea voyage and discover the pearl-diving era. The Search for the Star Pearl is a story I am very passionate to tell.
The concept developed a few years ago when I was working on my first feature film, Ghrangaoo, based on traditional and cultural folklore. I wanted to expand the sea-faring universe and dive into something of a much larger scale and open a new dimension filled with sea creatures and colonies on the edge of the world. For the past couple of years, I have been living in this world, developing the story with talented writers from the United States, fleshing out the script, and carefully building the visual world and narrative for this film. It’s a one-of-a-kind project that is inspired by Arabian Gulf folklores. This dramatic adventure has rarely been told in full-length animated form and it is the first Qatari feature animated film in collaboration with a Spanish creative team.
What sort of challenges were involved in making this film?
I have always dreamed to make a film that appeals to the masses, and at the same time, tackles a cultural story. I had to rewrite the story so many times just to find the right balance that could reach and resonate with an international audience. I always desired to create a father and son story setting out on voyage in search of a legendary pearl. Soon, I began working with writers and finalising and polishing the script. We received helpful comments such as that the story would work better if the characters are younger. It was a very challenging decision for me to start over with new big changes in both the story and character development. We decided to change the characters by leaving out the father and letting Ali and his group of teenage friends take the lead. That forced us to rewrite the completed script from the beginning, and we pulled it off. Now, I feel very confident that we made the right choice and that the story and the script works much better.
At what age, and why did you decide to take up producing and directing films seriously?
When I was studying theatre design and technology in the US, I discovered the art of cinema and it became my passion. I got more interested to master this art form and try to tell stories through the visual language. I decided to shift my career to filmmaking. I attended more film classes and finally obtained a master’s degree in direction. When I got back to Qatar, I started working on my films. It was very challenging to get the funding and produce films back in early 2005. But then, things of late have begun getting a lot better.
Having directed TV shows and documentaries, and made films that have travelled the world, what are some of the bigger lessons you have learnt through the journey that you would like to share with upcoming filmmakers in Qatar and the region?
It has been a very interesting journey. Every time I made a film and had it showcased in festivals for different groups of audience from different cultural backgrounds, I learnt that the audience was more drawn to the visual story-telling than dialogue-driven films. I noticed that they want to know more about our culture and personal stories that they can not get from television or news channels. So I really encourage my fellow Qatari filmmakers to take these opportunities given to them nowadays and produce more films to showcase our identity and culture. Cinema is an innovative and a universal platform to showcase our artistic abilities. It has its own difficulties once it comes to the financing part, but there are always hopes and ways around it. There are many local institutions such as the Doha Film Institute (DFI) and TV stations that could fund or finance film projects. In addition to that, there are more funds from MENA region available as grants. The filmmakers should double their efforts to work on their scripts and produce films.
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