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Masterclasses at Qumra 2024 by Leos Carax, Claire Denis and More

Two men sit on a stage separated by a small wooden table at a Q&A.Richard Peña and Leos Carax on stage at Qumra 2024

Launched ten years ago by the Doha Film Institute, Qumra is an industry convention held annually in Qatar’s capital city of Doha. Through panels, workshops, screenings and masterclasses, Qumra brings together a cross-section of producers, festival programmers and journalists in an effort, according to organizers, to “provide mentorship, nurturing, and hands-on development for filmmakers from Qatar and around the world.” This year’s edition, which ran from March 1 to 6, arrived at a particularly fraught moment for the Middle East with Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza. After cancelling last November’s Ajyal Film Festival in solidarity with Palestine, the DFI, which oversees both events, soldiered on with Qumra. Speaking at a press briefing, Fatma Hassan Alremaihi, the Chief Executive Officer of the DFI, reiterated the organization’s mission to promote new and independent voices from across the region, pointedly adding that “the funding, workshops and networking provided by DFI and through initiatives such as Qumra have helped create films that address the misrepresentation of the Arab world.”

Coincidentally or not, Palestinian director Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention, 2002; It Must Be Heaven, 2019), who acts as the DFI’s artistic advisor, was highly visible throughout the week, sitting in on masterclasses, chatting with the press and being convivial with the public at Qumra’s main venue, the Museum of Islamic Art, which overlooks Doha’s skyline of opulent high-rises along the Persian Gulf. Just as politics were more at the fore since my last trip to Qumra in 2019—at which time Qatar was under a land and sea blockade by multiple countries due to its ties to Iran and alleged support of several Islamist movements—so too was the organizational focus notably fixed on cinema (or, in some cases, television), rather than some of the ancillary activities (e.g., VR) that tend to divert attention at events like these. As proof of concept for the 40-plus filmmakers arriving to this year’s edition with projects in various stages of development, eight recent DFI-backed films were screened at the museum, including popular and critical favorites from Cannes (Banel and Adama, About Dry Grasses) and Venice (Bye Bye Tiberias), as well as a new archival feature by Kamal Aljafari (A Fidai Film), the Palestinian director’s anticipated followup to 2020’s surveillance thriller An Unusual Summer.

Participating filmmakers hoping to glean something useful about process or methodology are typically best served by the masterclasses, which this year featured directors Claire Denis, Leos Carax, Atom Egoyan and Jim Sheridan. But while plenty of anecdotes were shared at all four talks, neither Denis or Carax is especially forthcoming about their practice. Indeed, the former primarily spoke about her childhood in West Africa and the films she subsequently made there, while the typically cryptic conversation with the latter—moderated, as was every talk except for Egoyan’s, by Richard Peña—moved chronologically, albeit with the odd omission of 2012’s beloved Holy Motors, which an audience member had to bring up (to much applause) during the Q&A. Tellingly, both Denis and Carax spent ample time praising editor Nelly Quettier, who has worked on a majority of each of their best films. (Say what you will about Denis’s recent work, but there’s no denying that her films have become much more streamlined since her collaboration with Quettier ended after 2004’s The Intruder.) Of their work on 1999’s landmark Beau Travail, Denis said she had to trust Quettier to examine the rushes remotely in France, since the conditions in Djibouti kept her and cinematographer Agnès Godard from being able to look at footage as they shot—a dynamic she attributes for that film’s evergreen immediacy. Carax, for his part, said that he’s learned everything he knows about editing from Quettier, who has worked on all of the director’s films save his debut and forthcoming featurette It’s Not Me, which he revealed he’s editing himself. “I love editing,” he said. “It’s the only time [when making a film] that I don’t feel like an imposter.”

Those seeking more practical information were better off sitting in on the discussions with Sheridan and Egoyan, who themselves made for interesting comparison points. Both had their greatest successes early on—Sheridan with My Left Foot (1989) and In the Name of the Father (1993); Egoyan with Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997)—and, in a similar way, have seen their stock fall over the last couple of decades. But where the discussion of Sheridan’s film work ended after In America (2003), Egoyan and moderator Jovan Marjanović spent considerable time going over the director’s less lauded recent efforts, and in particular the child abduction drama The Captive (2014), which Egoyan prizes for its lead performance by Ryan Reynolds but admits regretting taking to Cannes, where it was roundly panned. (That said, he thinks the film may play better today in light of the Jeffrey Epstein saga.) Compared to Carax, who wouldn’t so much as glance at the clips being shown from his films (and eventually started to step outside to smoke during these segments), Sheridan and Egoyan were engaged and attentive to the material throughout—especially Egoyan, who eagerly watched the excerpts from the edge of his seat as if seeing them for the first time. Of the two pairings, I can’t help but think that the openness and plainspoken introspection of Sheridan and Egoyan provided more tangible advice for the young filmmakers in attendance than did the more aspirational musings of Carax and Denis, even if the latter two’s films are the ones more likely to inspire coming generations.

Among those young filmmakers, I was able to speak with a few and listen to several more over a series of breakfasts and lunches that mixed talent with the media. “One of our challenges as Qatari filmmakers is to find our voice,” said Amal Al-Muftah, whose short film Before the Day Breaks centers on a female truck driver tasked with delivering a strange package. “Qumra makes the big world of filmmaking small,” she added, noting that because of the event’s longevity it’s been able to foster a space for Arabic filmmakers to grow alongside one another as their projects have slowly taken shape. To that end, one of the more unfortunately urgent films in development is The Myth of Mahmoud, a co-directed feature by first-time filmmakers Mayar Hamdan and Shaima Al Tamimi that documents Hamdan’s Palestinian family as they struggle with living in relative safety in Doha while their homeland is under attack. “We do feel like we can talk about [the war] here,” Hamdan said. “But it has gotten more complicated.” Regardless, her and Al Tamimi believe that if they stay true to their convictions and “tell the story emotionally, from a personal place,” the film will find an audience.

Ultimately, it’s that personal perspective that unites the projects—whether dramas, documentaries or genre films. Speaking about Roqia, a horror movie inspired by the ghosts of French Algeria, director Yanis Koussim said that the eerie conceit is merely a way to explore his colonial heritage, and to expect less of typical genre film and something more along the lines of Maurice Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan (1987), a reference point recalling something Al Tamini said of her own film: “The goal is to artfully communicate with the audience without relying on the conveyance of information.” However these or any of Qumra’s projects turns out, it’s this approach to storytelling that will, at the very least, help keep cinema interesting for the foreseeable future.

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