The fresh voice of youth at Aljazeera film fest

DOHA // Many of the nearly 200 films screened during this week’s Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival offered a glimpse into the unsettled lives of youth across a region experiencing great and sometimes violent change as it opens up to, and crashes against, the modern world.

“Young people today are more likely to be bicultural and travel a lot,” Hamid Naficy, a film professor at Northwestern University-Qatar, said after watching several shorts by young filmmakers at the free four-day event.

“They experience different languages and ideas, and are no longer seeing the world through the national perspective, but a personal one,” he added. “They are constructing their own identities, and we’re seeing a shift from roots to routes.”

Launched in 2005, the festival has grown steadily. This year’s films, from more than 90 countries including the United States, China, Russia, Yemen, Japan, Senegal, Argentina, Spain, Iran and the UAE, were chosen from nearly 1,000 submissions. They competed for awards in four categories: full-length, medium, short and New Horizons, for young and first-time directors.

The festival theme was Freedom, but a number of films highlighted the hardships of where they were made. Sons of the Sun, made by the Doha-born Egyptian filmmaker Ahmad Abdul Nasser, examined the marginalisation of albinos in Egypt.

Petty Dreams, by the Qatari film student Tariq el Makki, addressed the increase in suicide among expatriate workers in Qatar. The story focused on South Asian labourers but also presented two Arab expatriates painfully recalling how deceptive recruiters destroyed their lives.

“The underbelly of the Qatari economy is blue-collar workers,” said Prof Naficy, who has written three books on exile and diaspora issues. “One part of globalisation is this incredible displacement of people, resulting in a ‘labour diaspora’ that covers a gamut of motivations and social classes.”

One social group with a strong presence in this year’s festival was women. They directed more than 50 of the selections, including Breast Cancer, a New Horizons short made by two second-year journalism students at Northwestern University-Qatar.

The film, for which Thouria Mahmoud and Zainab Sultan received top marks in their visual media class, details how despite advances in modern science, the illness remains a taboo subject across the Gulf.

“It’s always blamed on the woman here,” Ms Mahmoud, 19, a Palestinian born and raised in Qatar, said after the film’s screening. As a result, no locals were willing to speak about their experience on film. The young filmmakers instead focused on the difficult experiences of expatriates.

“Qatari women are involved in activist programmes,” said Ms Sultan, 21, an Indian raised in Saudi Arabia. “But they may not want to come out in such a public forum.” In the end, the film seemed to suggest that only by bringing the illness into the light could it be defeated.

The Syrian filmmaker Su’dad Kaadan, meanwhile, sought to upend gender roles. Looking for Pink tells the story of four Syrian women who excel in professions generally reserved for men in the Arab world, including a musician, a kickboxing champion and a pilot.

“They are in different fields and living distinct personal lives,” Ms Su’dad told the Qatar Tribune. “But they face the same kind of pressure from their families and society.”

Other films held fast to deeply rooted traditions.

Abdel Rahman El Bazanji’s A Tale from Mesopotamia uses Iraq’s narrative tradition – the birthplace of writing; the oft-told tales of Baghdad; the popularity of poetry – to frame the effect of the US invasion.

In making The Falcon, meanwhile, the veteran Australian wildlife filmmaker Lyndal Davis zeroed in Qataris’ centuries-long love for falcons.

Riham Assi also examined nature, but from a different angle. In her short film Forgotten Flower, which she made as her graduation project at St Joseph University in Beirut, a tobacco plant expresses abandonment and neglect as it is cut, dried and packaged for shipping.

“In the Middle East and beyond there has been a real emergence of women filmmakers, and along with that there is a new experimentation with style,” Prof Naficy said. “This is essentially an autobiographical story told from the point of view of the plant, and it’s told with great sensitivity and environmental consciousness.”

With bold thinking, cheaper equipment and the ease of online distribution, such experimentation among Arab filmmakers is leading to a blossoming akin to that of Iranian cinema in the 1970s, Prof Naficy said.

One hurdle, however, is that most major film and television ventures in the Gulf, such as Alnoor Holdings’ film fund, worth US$200 million (Dh734m), have their eyes turned to the West.

“Going towards Hollywood is one way, but going local is another way that can be equally exciting,” he said. Prof Naficy teaches students from 15 countries. He envisions them returning to their homelands to work, yet keeping in regular contact with their former classmates.

“A sort of lateral network will develop that might replace the national,” he said. “Governments would do well to create more venues and events like this festival to increase the opportunities for their creative youth.”

That is not to say there are no opportunities today. While leaving the screening of their film on Tuesday, Ms Mahmoud and Ms Sultan were introduced to a producer from Al Jazeera News. Prof Naficy advised the two journalism students to apply for jobs.

“We will,” said Ms Mahmoud, smiling.

originally appeared in 23 April 2010 The National (www.thenational.ae)

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