In a globalized era of filmmaking, it is imperative to understand how a country like Qatar, with a cumulative space for filmmaking, is developing its inner apparatus and industry to match Hollywood on one hand, and the urge to preserve its identity on the other. Arshak MA, a graduate from Film and Television Institute of India, currently working for a media production in Doha, converses with Tarik Husseini, founder and director of Qatar Film Society, a collective effort of filmmakers and artists based in Doha, Qatar.
Could you tell me about yourself and the ideas that necessitated the formation of Qatar Film Society?
I am a Qatari and am currently pursuing Masters in Film. I have worked for almost ten years in different productions and filmmaking around the world. I have always been aware of the abundance of resources such as equipment, people, and talent in Doha, but it lacks the space for filmmakers who are amateurs, students, or freelancers. After studying for years, I developed Qatar Film Society, and today it has become Qatar’s largest database of creative film professionals within the region. We have managed to connect over 1200 filmmakers, 35 production houses and four universities in Doha. Our mission to nurture a film community still continues because we want to encompass the entire Gulf region. We will be launching the Dubai Film Society soon. Our concept is to endow all the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries with their own dedicated communities to serve the particular needs of their film industry.
How would you describe the film culture of Qatar? Home to a large number of expat communities, how has the cinema in this country evolved?
Qatar’s film industry is still young. We are a globalized community. People here see films from the East and the West. There is a large Indian community here, and filmmakers from India have been a huge inspiration. The country is doing its best to catch up with the latest trends in global cinema. One sees a lot of big Hollywood productions and filmmaking activities here. Since the majority of people here are away from their homes and families, it is important for them to have some connection that serves as a reminder of their culture and identity. With the Indian community in general, Bollywood has been one such instrument. It has a solid foundation, with an impressive legacy of filmmaking activities and film culture. Now filmmakers and production houses from Europe and Hollywood seek support from different Indian production houses because of their expertise and knowledge not only in producing films but doing so within a certain budget.
On the legacy of Arab cinema, I think it is imperative not only to cultivate a new film culture for the new generation but also to preserve the heritage and the identity of older classics. Bollywood and Arabic films have been instrumental in cultivating and understanding the legacy of films from the 50s and 60s, and in many ways, Iran’s film industry was more advanced than even Hollywood because it pushed the social boundaries and offered an insight into the working of its communities. A film is a product of the time in which it has developed. Qatar has always made efforts to preserve archival footage — through entities like the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha (MIA) and Museum of Heritage — not only of films but of newsreels and art pieces where they have digitized everything and created a database. In future, if Qatar and the GCC establish theatres and festivals that promote such artistic history, it will enrich the cultural heritage for younger generations. A major step was taken in Qatar in the form of Doha Film Institute (DFI) in collaboration with Tribeca Film Institute of New York to cultivate a new vision for films in the country.
People flock to GCC nations primarily to make money. What kind of impact has this oil-driven economic system had on the industry and its filmmakers?
Filmmaking is not an art related to your paycheque. If you are here just for the money, you are in the wrong industry. Doha, as a newcomer in the industry, has its own limitations. Over five years ago, we witnessed a surge as over 65 big production houses opened here, excluding advertising agencies and talent agencies. They brought all the highly paid equipment and professionals from abroad without any foresight in maintaining the momentum, but after the economic recession, companies discovered that people were not paying for corporate productions.
The idea of ‘more regional, more pure’ is diminishing these days. In a globalized world, how do films made here compete with those from Hollywood?
Qatar is in a very interesting position as it is fighting globalization by protecting its heritage and true identity. Because the money is here, people are flocking in from their home countries where there are no jobs. They are investing themselves here and sending the money back home. For this industry to promote itself, funds like DFI have to support filmmakers who employ local people and thus give back to the community. There is a tendency among the producers here to compete with Hollywood. They should instead assimilate and create a space for their own people and culture. The use of certain colours, camera movements, motifs and themes is intrinsic to films made in certain parts of India, and one can relate the film to India. If Qatar tries to become another Hollywood, then it will just make mediocre films like Hollywood itself. On these lines, Qatar — more specifically, DFI — has not only created two film festivals but it has also created a healthy film literacy for the people here. Even though our first cinema opened in 1977, our first film festival happened just six years ago. It is, therefore, unfair to compete with Sundance that started in the 60s, or Hollywood, which has been here for over a hundred years.
What are your achievements at the international level of filmmaking?
Besides the premiere of Qatar’s first feature film at many prestigious international film festivals, we have completed our first 100 million dollar production, which is slated for a summer release. Films made in Qatar have been showcased in many universities and film schools abroad. International production houses, including Disney, now recognize Qatar as a fertile ground for filmmaking.
How good is the skill transfer from the West to filmmakers in GCC?
We have a lot of aspiring filmmakers but they lack the necessary technical skills. They need to be mentored. The influx of the European market has been good. It has its downside as well in terms of the budget, but overall people here are now more aware of technology and mastering the art of filmmaking by collaborating with and learning from the West.
What are your views on the strict censorship prevailing in Arab countries over filmmaking?
In the 1940s, the then CEO of Warner Bros. said that if you want to send a message in a film, use the post-box, not cinema. My philosophy — because of my experience of working in films here and understanding the community, their restrictions and laws — is that this is a community which is trying to hold on to its beliefs. I urge people faced with these restrictions not to see it as a defeat, but as a creative mechanism for diversion where you can still convey what you want. Basically, it is all about understanding the country, its philosophy and its culture.
It is very interesting to know that around 80 percent of filmmakers here are women.
Doha has some very inspiring women filmmakers, who really push the envelope because of their unique identity and perspective about the culture. A number of their films showcase their struggles and concerns and have been acclaimed worldwide.
In Europe, cinema is assumed to be a byproduct of the industrial revolution. How is cinema as an offshoot of cultural diversity in Qatar viewed?
Hollywood studios and producers have a specific formula for specific audiences, and they are very generic in doing so. The speciality of Qatar lies in its cultural diversity; a film that is not my cup of tea might be liked by someone else. That establishes some sort of dialogue between people. There is a diversity of films that are made here. That brings about critical thinking, which is very essential for cultural development.