Young, bright Qatari talents were in no short supply at Doha Film Institute’s ‘Focus on Qatar 2016’ that was held at the Museum of Islamic Art, over the weekend. Celebrating the power of documentaries to tell inspiring stories that also have a social impact, the festival shone the spotlight on the country’s filmmakers who actively pursue the art of documentaries.
Of the seven short documentaries directed by Qatari filmmakers, young Jassim al-Rumaihi’s Palm Tree stood out for its visual heft. Made as part of DFI’s Doc Lab, the cleverly conceptualised and neatly shot Palm Tree won the Made in Qatar Award for Best Documentary at the Ajyal Youth Film Festival last year. On the sidelines of the event, senior producer and journalist at Al Jazeera Arabic, who covers politics and hard news, al-Rumaihi sat down with Community for a chat.
You and your film are part of Focus on Qatar 2016. How do you feel to be at the forefront of the new, emerging wave of young Qatari filmmakers?
To be honest, I don’t like the focus. I think the focus puts a lot of pressure and my approach to filmmaking is that of a part-timer’s. As a journalist with Al Jazeera, Arabic, I take my job very seriously. Since I cover politics and hard news, I turn to filmmaking as a way to escape the pressures of politics and the agony of seeing violence, the dead, the injured, and the wars that are happening around the world. I try to create documentaries that reflect what I find to be beautiful in this region and this culture that I’m part of.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your growing up times…
I come from a family that deeply appreciates media and journalism. My father has been the head of Qatar TV, the editor of the Al Saqr sports magazine, and also editor-in-chief of Al Raya newspaper, among other things. So I grew up idolising my father, wishing that I follow his footsteps. I had a chance to study at a great school, Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q), and I learnt a lot of skills that I never thought I’d be able to possess. One of them is speaking in public and speaking in front of the camera, and making films and documentaries. I wanted to keep and hone these skills even though I wouldn’t practice them professionally. A lot of my work involves a lot of writing in Arabic and a lot of talking as a correspondent. But there’s very little actual shooting or the use of the camera. So I try to keep connected to that.
How did you get your first taste of making films?
My first experience with filmmaking was with a short documentary, which I made as a school project in 2010, with my friend Rizwan Islam. It was about a falcon and the revolution; the story centred on an Egyptian Bedouin and his reaction when he learns of the outcome of the revolution. The film received great feedback at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and I could also take it to the Tribeca Film Festival in the US. And there, I experienced how big festivals are, how important they are, and how people can be so interested in films and how a short film from a school project can give so much perspective to people. I felt it was like a mission to me that I must continue doing that; to create films, to travel the world and give voice to my culture and my country.
How did you get to making Palm Tree, which is winning audience in every screening?
Two years ago, I remember, I was covering the Yemeni War from the borders of Saudi Arabia for Al Jazeera when I got an e-mail from DFI about the new Qatar Film Fund. I applied with the idea of doing a short documentary based on a specific story in the world of horse-racing and it won the grant. That film, Amer – The Arabian Legend, about Amer, a stallion which was a gift to the royal family of Qatar and one of Qatar’s most famous racehorses, is ready but is under post-production and will hopefully, be ready to be screened at the next Ajyal. Meanwhile, my friends at DFI suggested I take a workshop in the summer of 2015. In that workshop, we were supposed to give ideas for another short documentary and mine was the idea of a poetic narrative documentary on palm trees. To me, to Qatar, and to this region, palm tree stands for nationalism and it is a symbol of this culture and of Islam. You can see it in the flags and currencies of various Arab countries, from Morocco to Iraq. I wanted to make a film that talks about the beauty of the palm tree. The short documentary Palm Tree follows the style we learnt in the documentary workshop, which basically lets the pictures speak directly to the viewer, allowing them to reflect on the visuals they are presented with.
How different is your desire to tell stories via film than via journalism?
When you work in the newsroom of a TV news channel, there are always deadlines to mind and also shorter time periods to work with the story. Also, since the work is fact-based, it’s very dry. So I try to escape from that and have more creativity in the films I make and have more time to think about it and explore it. I think this goes back to the idea of why I wanted to go into journalism right at the start. And that’s because it gives you keys to doors that you otherwise could not enter. It gives you a chance to speak to people you would otherwise feel quite intimidated or overwhelmed by. Also, being a journalist gives you the right to ask questions. So I guess it’s the spirit of exploring that keeps me going, be it in documentary filmmaking or in journalism.
What do you make of the rising force of homegrown cinema and the new lot of Qatari filmmakers?
I think what we see of the film scene in Qatar, or in other GCC countries, is still the very beginning. The biggest challenge in terms of cinema and filmmaking in Qatar is not the number of talents we have, but the way the industry is treated. It’s not treated as an industry, or a job-generator, or a sector that can grow and be part of the economy. The way to do that, I think, is to encourage policies that will help local companies grow and also help investors invest in this sector. Also, obviously, we must have the infrastructure like cinemas and film festivals, which we can see DFI is doing. But we need to create a film industry so as to draw people into it. Most people who make films do it as a second job or a hobby, a trend that will die out eventually because as I grow up, my responsibilities grow, too. I can’t have two full-time jobs; I need to choose one. And of course, I’m pushed to pursue my journalism job. A lot of people here want to get into films full-time but can’t because the sector currently is hobby-based, not ‘professional’ based. And I believe things will eventually change for the better.
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