Qatar's cultural ambitions: take one

Doha // Khalifa al Maraikhi shoulders a heavy burden.

“Every nation has a culture,” said the director of Aqaribabzah, the first Qatari feature film. “As an artist, filmmaker or musician, it’s important to reflect this culture into your art.”

As Doha steps into the spotlight as the Arab Capital of Culture for 2010 – an Arab League and UN designation – its budding reputation as a cultural centre is at stake.

Previous recipients of the honour, including Damascus, Jerusalem and Algiers, have found the designation both opportunity and test for their nascent arts scenes.

In Qatar, dozens of artists, artisans and government officials have already prepared more than a hundred events, including music recitals, heritage festivals, calligraphy contests and art exhibits.

Mr al Maraikhi's Aqaribabzah ("Clockwise" in Arabic) might be the bellwether. Financed, produced and directed by Qataris, it represents the filmmaking ambitions of a country of some 250,000 people. It also highlights one of Qatar’s few native art forms.

The film, set in the 1930s, is based on the Gulf legend of three men who make a Faustian bargain with a djinn in exchange for the ability to become master fijiri singers. Although there are several different genres, fijiri music generally comprises a lead singer accompanied by a clapping, drum-playing chorus. The form originated more than a century ago among pearl divers of Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, and remains popular in the region.

At the same time, Aqaribabzah underscores Qatar’s cultural shortcomings. Five years ago, Mr al Maraikhi and a friend wrote a script based on the folk tale and passed the story on to a few acquaintances.

But with no film production studios in Qatar, nothing came of it until last January, when the country received the cultural capital honour.

Within weeks, the ministry of culture, arts and heritage approved the film with a 10 million rial (Dh10.1m) budget. “In the US and Europe there are production companies that invest in films,” said Mr al Maraikhi, 50. “Here we don’t have those – we need the government to help us.”

The film’s composer is Howard Shore, an American who scored the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator. The cinematographer, assistant director and crew are Bollywood veterans flown in from India. The lead actress, Maisa Magribi, is from Morocco.

The rest of the cast and crew are Qatari, but with little experience.

On the last day of shooting a few weeks ago, the director sidled up to his thobe-wearing leads after an unsatisfactory take. Using words and gestures, he explained his vision for the scene, returned to his chair behind a stack of monitors and shouted, “Action!”.

The room froze – except for the actors, whose faces expressed great fear as they cautiously descended into a cave marked by grotesque wall paintings.

“I’m getting tired of telling actors what to do,” said Mr al Maraikhi, whose Qatari cast has only worked on stage or on TV serials. “Film acting is different, every movement, every expression is important; we’ve had to teach them that. They started out a bit nervous, now they’re doing all right.”

Initially scheduled to hit theatres in March, Aqaribabzah’s release was pushed back to May, following post-production in Bangkok. The delay is due, in part, to Qatar’s lack of facilities.

“Everybody is talking about a film industry, but this requires studios, screenwriters, experienced actors, filmmakers and a market,” said Mr al Maraikhi, who studied filmmaking in Los Angeles before returning to Qatar in the 1990s to make short films and music videos. “We just don’t have film production experience here. What we have is maybe the beginning of a film movement.”

That movement would include the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, held here last November. As well as attracting large crowds, it may also have uncovered some young filmmaking talent.

That same week, the Qatari media group Alnoor Holdings launched a US$200 million (Dh740m) film fund that plans to partner as yet unnamed Hollywood players to make a dozen feature films over five years, starting with a $100m film about the life of Prophet Mohammed.

Although not widely known, Qatar has a budding music, art and poetry scene too, which the government has been trying to promote.

In poetry, Ali al Muri, a Qatari, has in recent weeks proved to be one of the more entertaining and successful contestants on the current season of the reality TV show, Million’s Poet.

A recent religious and cultural festival organised by the Fanar Islamic Centre included well-attended poetry recitals, along with calligraphy and other exhibitions.

In terms of music, the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra regularly performs classical and operatic pieces, and presented a programme of eight Puccini arias this past week. During Qatar’s National Day celebrations last month, dozens of fijiri musicians and singers performed at malls and parks across Doha. And the Qatar Foundation is set to open the Qatar Music Academy in September. Open to all nationalities, it will focus on Arab music, highlighting links to American jazz and European composition.

Regular art shows attract nationals and expats to small, chic galleries in Souq Waqif, a popular downtown Doha quarter remade into a traditional souq. In March, Sotheby’s opened a Doha office – its first in the Gulf. And before moving on to cities including Abu Dhabi, Amman, New York, Paris and Berlin, the Art Wanson Gallery last month launched the world tour of its exhibition Passion for Art at Doha’s Grand Hyatt Hotel.

“Doha is fast becoming a hub of art and culture and we want to be a part of the process,” said Mercedes Duerinckx, who owns the gallery, based in Marbella, Spain.

But it is the much-praised Museum of Islamic Art, which offers one of the region’s most dynamic collections of art and artifacts, that made Qatar’s name in international arts. The museum opened in January 2009 and is planning a host of exhibits and screenings in conjunction with the cultural capital title.

Qatari leaders acknowledge that Doha’s art scene does not build on tradition. Rather they intend to build a new foundation for art in the Qatari capital. “We are not buying culture, we are investing in culture,” said Abdullah Najjar, the chief executive of the Qatar Museums Authority. “It is something that will be seen by future generations as an important investment.”

Aqaribabzah is among the most high-profile of those investments.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” said Salah Darwish, one of the film’s leading stars.

The 57-year-old Qatari studied drama in Cairo and earned acting awards in Damascus but stopped performing 26 years ago because of a dearth of good roles. “There were no interesting stories, no good parts,” he said. “But this film could change everything.”

Mr al Maraikhi hopes to take Aqaribabzah to international festivals, and to make more movies in the future. But first he is looking to the film’s premiere, as part of Doha’s year as the Arab Capital of Culture.

“It’s a big deal, because you’ll have many people, many countries seeing what Qatar is doing at the moment,” he said. “We don’t expect to make millions out of this film, but we hope that people enjoy it.”

originally published 15 Jan, 2010, in The National:

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