On Doha’s Ajyal Festival and Rediscovering the Shared Experience

December 6, 2021


By Jason Gorber


It’s easy to conclude that Doha, the capital of Qatar, is one of the most remarkable, surreal, and fascinating places I’ve ever had the chance to visit. Located on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf, attached to Saudi Arabia on the south, across the water from Iran, and flanked by neighbours Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, it’s a complicated neighbourhood with strained relationships. It’s a land of unimaginable wealth, undergoing tumultuous change as the landscape is being transformed from flat desert to a megalopolis of towering office buildings and sprawling event spaces. Through media empires such as Al Jazeera, cultural institutions like the Doha Film Institute, and hosting events like next year’s FIFA Word Cup, the land is expanding and amplifying its cultural impact well beyond its borders.

This DFI, just like its similarly acronym’d Danish counterpart, is one of the most powerful and prestigious funders of projects from all over the world. It has been especially prominent in fostering award-winning cinema over the last several years. They are the primary host of the annual Ajyal (aka “Youth”) Festival, a fascinating annual event where multiple juries, grouped by age (8-12, 13-18, 18-25) select their preferred films from a slate that includes both local premieres and internationally sourced titles. Other events that take place under the Ajyal banner include art shows and Comic-Con-like exhibitions and gaming tournaments, all meant to foster the spirit of youth within the country and the region. For a nation that is relatively young and growing more powerful, with tremendous potential for the future, it’s a fitting celebration by the powers that be to emphasise this aspect of their growing global importance.

Naturally there are other, more insidious layers to both this nation’s growth. They’re fueled, of course, by billions in petrochemical dollars lucre, as well as certain conservative ideologies and restrictions that would be abhorrent to many. There were also clear absences in the selection from a nation that’s notably hostile if downright violent to certain lifestyles and ideas. Yet despite these strictures, and the feeling throughout that I was indeed a “stranger in a strange land,” I found myself drawn in not as much by the event or by the films themselves, but by the many remarkable individuals with whom I had the privilege to interact. It was the new friends I made and the deep conversations we shared, that truly uplifted my experience. This factor and sense of community, perhaps secondary in the planning stage but so vital to any festival experience, once again illustrates how the virtual world forced upon us by recent events is paltry compared to the simple, human ability to connect face to face, or at least mask to mask.

The opening film was Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero, a film that I’d managed to avoid seeing at both TIFF and Cannes. It’s the sobering story of a man released on leave from debtors’ prison where he struggles to find a way to pay back money that was owed. When his new partner stumbles across some money at a bus stop, he returns it rather than buying his own freedom, which in turn makes him a cause célèbre. The result is a cascade of poor decisions, bureaucratic backbiting, and “milkshake duck”-like social media mayhem, to use a contemporary phrase, that turns these acts into something far more complex.

While many love Farhadi’s brand of cinema, it often leaves me cold. His metaphors are obvious and the foibles of human behaviour are so overtly pointed away from systemic issues he’s leery to disturb. While some of the people are seen as crude and selfish, Farhadi’s films always feel as if they’re holding back a punch. The director seems leery to actually point his camera at the systemic rot of his nation, nor able to fitfully decry the very culture that would elicit such hypocrisies we see play out. His cinema is created within a system that’s highly controlling and, for many, his films glean even the most subtle of recognition that he’s anti-establishment, even if over and over some of the core injustices go unexplored or unchallenged.

Still, I’m certainly in the minority with my feelings about this and other films, and not only is this filmmaker lauded internationally (the two-time Oscar winner took home the prestigious Grand Prix, the second highest prize, at Cannes this year), but in Toronto, he’s often championed as a hero. His films have received wild, enthusiastic praise over the years.

In Doha, the response was indeed more muted than may have been expected, perhaps not swayed by the romanticism of such a character as seen from outside the region. Despite the prestige of the red carpet, many seemed uninterested in the events on screen, with some pulling out their phones to make calls, not simply to receive them. Others chatted amongst themselves, and I saw quite a few people sitting with their eyes closed. Others would leave repeatedly, clearly missing main plot points without concern for narrative integrity.

However, there were those among the crowd who were sparked by the caliber of the film. Following the screening, I found myself accidentally in a scrum of sorts, as several locals noticed that I was a foreigner and therefore wanted my opinion on the film. The result was one of those wonderful moments endemic to film festivals where cinephiles engage in broad, respectful discussion about the film’s themes, successes, and failures outside the theatre. I heard from them deeply personal perspectives shaped by their own experiences not only cinematically but within the context of living in Doha, and was warmed by the sense of community that’s been so absent during these times of plague.

The conversation continued over at a nearby restaurant, where long into the night we talked of world cinema, the changing role of documentary, Farhadi’s strengths and limitations, and so on. It was here among this community of erudite and deeply passionate cinephiles that the festival truly came alive for me. It was a reminder that films can be easily screened digitally from the comfort of one’s home, but that these accidental experiences are exactly the elements of a festival that cannot truly be replicated virtually. Festivals are about this level of community and personal connection. While it certainly wasn’t overtly planned or fostered by the Ajyal organization for this type of cultural exchange to take place, by simply being open to such circumstances, my time in this faraway place was immediately elevated.

The following day, I took in the “Made in Qatar” series, a selection of short films that spanned from neo-future takes on immigration lines through to some fairly risible “documentaries” that owed more to propaganda than to serious filmmaking.

Khalifa Al Thani’s Border exhibited the highest level of craft, and clearly was well budgeted and executed by a professional crew. The story of a middle-aged man named Mohammed struggling to navigate the vagaries of an immigration post, the echoes to certain border restrictions are obvious, even if the targeting feels a bit simplistic. For those outside Qatar, it should be noted that the house of Thani forms the most powerful and prestigious family in the country, essentially the ruling class that dominate all economic, social and political life. Whatever the implicit privileges he brings with him, Khalifa’s film nonetheless seemed to have the kernel of a strong idea about navigating barriers, and its production design and staging were admirable for a film of this scope.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable by Shaima Al Tamimi provided a unique perspective from a young Yemeni filmmaker, and the film saw success when it premiered at Venice. A Lens Under Water by Fatma Zahra Abderrahim gave me, a scuba enthusiast who hopes one day to dive the waters in the desert, a brief if relatively banal look at life under water in Qatar’s famous inland sea. Sudanse/Russian filmmaker Suzannah Mirghani’s Virtual Voice is a wild, kinetic short that uses a “Bratz”-like doll as an avatar for the director’s life under COVID-19 restrictions. The short played Tribeca this year, and its caustic humour and surreal presentation (with pleasant reminders of Todd Haynes and Cynthia Schneider’s equally animated Superstar) proved to be a real standout.

Olayan, by Khalifa Al Marri, showcased the desert landscape often associated with Arabia, finding a story locale very different than the cluttered, constantly constructed urban environment of Doha itself. Fever Dream by Ania Hendryx is another COVID project, set in a luxury hotel where quarantine feels like a form of madness. And Then They Burn the Sea by Majid Al Remaihi is a personal story about a mother’s loss of memory. When Beirut Was Beirut by Alessandra El Chanti was an overly earnest short that provides anthropomorphic narration by collapsing buildings to tell the history of the city.

Atlal by Balkees Al Jaafar and Tony El Ghazalr follows a Palestinian family who have witnessed the massive changes in Qatar, finding that, despite decades living in this country, there’s not enough to hold onto. (Their planned new home? Canada, bien sur.) Finally, there’s There Were People by Mohamed Al Hamadi, tracing the life of hardship of those in Lebanon but appearing far more as a paid commercial for the largesse of the gulf host than anything actually cinematic or journalistic.

The following day I screened Mounia Akl’s Costa Brava, Lebanon, another film I had missed at TIFF following its Venice premiere. The film stars Capernaum director Nadine Labaki alongside Saleh Bakri as former activist who are raising their kids in the countryside, away from the turmoil of Beirut. When their land is sold to waste management services, they find their bucolic environment literally being trashed before their eyes. The metaphor of encroaching toxicity was obvious yet effective, and the performances do well to draw us into the story. The shifting pace of the film results in an uneven tale, yet its premise, which mixes family drama with overt political and environmental struggles is a ripe one.

I caught a Q&A session with internationally celebrated filmmaker Elia Suleiman held in an art gallery that showcased young Palestinian artists’ works. Surrounded by paintings adorning the walls that spoke of a land whose borders spanned “from the river to the sea,” Suleiman’s discussion of his own journey as a Palestinian was notably more nuanced, mentioning towards the end of his conversation that the notion of occupation was not simply from the ostensive neighbours, but an occupation from within as well. It was yet another reflection of how outwardly the signs were of more strident, dogmatic positions (akin, frankly, to most dialogue back here in Canada on the subject), but delving deeper found a subtlety and sophistication of thought on these complex subjects that was downright refreshing.

I had a fantastic conversation with Ali El Arabi, director of the Sundance hit film Captains of Za’atari. It was one of those amazing interviews where you felt you were truly connecting with the filmmaker, eliciting discussion of the complexity of not only the film, but also the process of making it, the response both internationally and within the region, and the various contradictions and challenges that the project evokes. I’m excited to see how El Arabi follows up this project, as he’s working now in Doha on another football related project timed to coincide with next year’s World Cup event.

I headed to one of the local multiplexes at a luxury mall to screen Ferit Karahan’s Brother’s Keeper, an exceptional if predictable tale set in a snowbound school in Eastern Turkey. Like A Hero it’s a film about institutional ass-covering, but this one seemed to earned its melodrama in more engaging ways, using the plight of an ailing child to show the cascade of poor decisions can result in a tragedy that’s all the more shocking because of its quotidian banality.

I visited the wild world drawn in Poupelle of Chimney Town, a Japanese animated film about post-apocalyptic town, where a trash spirit befriends a young boy who has lost his father. Dubbed into English, hearing Tony Hale’s voice come out of this assemblage of junk seemed somehow less surreal than walking past the Tim Horton’s coffee shot to attend the screening.

One of the more surreal yet enjoyable visits was back to the downtown area to experience the “Geekdom” event briefly. Hundreds were lined up to view videogamers competing for trophies, while a few wandering around in various anime and other costumes. Merchandise included pop figures, sci-fi posters, and T-shirts emblazoned with Hamas iconography, another admixture slightly different than perhaps expected. In one corner tables were setup for a half dozen to play Dungeons and Dragons, that game of imagination that a few decades ago helped sponsor for some a panic about their own children’s fascination with fantasy and fears of the occult.

After a chance elevator meeting with the film director Oualid Mouaness, with whom I shared a long and wonderfully meal where we talked about everything from Jaws to Jews, I did manage to screen his semi-autobiographical 1982. With another terrific turn by Nadine Labaki, the story follows a group of students who get caught up in an expanding Lebanese civil war. It’s a beautifully told tale, mixing the travails of youth with geopolitical conflict always on periphery, and it’s easy to see why the film has garnered so much attention and acclaim.

War stories through the eyes of children are often cloying and predictable, yet Mouaness manages to not only provide both warm nostalgia and appropriate complexity, but also highlights how the teachers and administrators themselves are caught merely navigating the required tasks of simply keeping things safe while powers outside their control rage. It was also fascinating to see how our shared enthusiasm for Lars Von Trier’s miraculous Breaking the Waves provided upon viewing a small if crucial understanding of the motivation for the film’s more fantastical final moments.

Originally set for release in early 2020, 1982 was caught up by international events outside its own control. As COVID restrictions ease, and cinemas reopen, the film is finding a new life as it is released throughout Europe and in other international markets. For a film that’s about tenacity, resilience and hope, it’s a fine message to reflect not only our own circumstances, but the prevailing themes of an event like Ajyal.