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Student filmmakers left in the lurch at Al Jazeera Docu Fest

Student filmmakers left in the lurch at Al Jazeera Docu Fest

The ninth Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival (April 18 to April 21, 2013) brought some of the best films from around the world, but left local student filmmakers in the lurch, writes Ola Diab.

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This year, ‘The Promising Films Competition’, was removed from the film festival due to ‘budget issues’. There were at least 10 documentaries under this category, mostly produced by Northwestern University in Qatar’s (NU-Q) students. The students, along with their professors, arrived at the Doha Sheraton Hotel in the morning of Thursday April 18 2013 only to find out that their documentaries won’t be screened.

The four-day film festival receives hundreds of submissions annually from different parts of the world, showcasing the work of international professional and nonprofessional filmmakers for an award that could range from QR10,000 to QR50,000, depending on the category their films fall in. The categories for the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival are:

  • The Main Competition – designed for TV channels, production companies, cultural, social and media organizations, independent and experienced filmmakers, which is further categorised under: ‘Short Films Category’ (up to 29 min)
, ‘Medium Films Category’ (from 30 min up to 59 min) and ‘Long Films Category’ (more than 60 min).
  • The New Horizon Competition – formulated for school students and directors with no prior experience.
  • The Promising Films Competition – created to motivate students from universities in Qatar to participate.
Disappointed students

“When I had arrived at the screening time, I couldn’t find the hall where the film was meant to be screened on the schedule. When I flipped through the schedule I noticed our film title wasn’t there. I then ran into my co-directors and they informed me that our films had been pulled from the category,” said Salima Al-Ismaili, an NU-Q journalism student who produced Catador with other NU-Q journalism students, Zena Al Tahhan, Sidra Ayub and Mahdiyeh Mahmoodzadeh.

Catador portrays how Rio de Janiro, Brazil is recovering from rapid urbanisation, focusing on how the government deals with the mountains of garbage produced by the city’s 12.5 million inhabitants.

“I feel disappointed by the lack of professionalism they displayed…I have no words for the level of incompetence the festival has showed this year,” added Al-Ismaili. When asked if she was informed about the removal of her film, she said, “They didn’t say a single word to me.”

I asked a volunteer and she said that they had made ‘last minute’ changes and some films were no longer in the festival. I asked her to let me speak to a manager, who approached me in a very unprofessional manner and blamed my university for not informing me.

Zeena Kanaan, a journalism graduate of NU-Q, co-produced Palestinian Price Tag with NU-Q journalism graduates Fatima Al-Nassr and Sara Al-Thani. The film traces the journeys of Palestinians who have left their homeland to where they currently reside in countries around the Gulf, where they are safer but still suffer due to their identity.

“I arrived on location 15 minutes before the screening and was casually browsing through a brochure only to find that my film was not there. I asked a volunteer and she said that they had made ‘last minute’ changes and some films were no longer in the festival. I asked her to let me speak to a manager, who approached me in a very unprofessional manner and blamed my university for not informing me,” said Kanaan.

The director of the festival told NU-Q Journalism Professor Andrew Mills that the sponsors who had committed to sponsor the Promising Films never paid up and that this is the second year that this has happened. “Last year, even though the sponsorship money never arrived, they went ahead with the screening of the Promising Films anyway. This year, however, they decided at the last minute to cancel the screening,” said Mills.

“The Promising Films Category was created in a partnership with the universities in Qatar Foundation. They sponsor the category. A week before the film festival began, they decided to pull away,” according to an official of the Al Jazeera Documentary Film Festival.

When asked why the participants were not informed about this, he said, “The category is a project of the universities at Qatar Foundation and not ours, so they were supposed to inform the participants about the removal of the category not us.”

“I told the organisers that I thought it was disappointing that they had to cancel the Promising Films section. I told them it was shameful that student filmmakers had been invited to the festival with the expectation that their films would be screened and had to find out on the day that their films had been cancelled. This was embarrassing for students and, rather than providing encouragement, it only discouraged student filmmakers,” added Mills.

“It was a disappointment all together. It was great having our film selected at the start, but it didn’t build up to anything in the end,” said Al-Ismaili.

Comments

  1. Salman Ahad Khan

    I completely agree with you. I was part of a group of Georgetown freshmen that also produced a documentary for the festival as part of the Labor Equations Program. Although we were all first time filmmakers, we were all quite appalled by the lack of organization from Al Jazeera’s behalf. First of all, they operate from a villa. You would expect an organization as well-known as Al Jazeera to at least have a headquarter for their Festival team which is manned at most times rather than a villa that is empty 90% of the time with no one to reply to questions regarding their operations. When we submitted our entry for the festival, we had to leave it with the security guard of the compound that the Al Jazeera team were operating from. Second, they never reply to any email you send them and do not follow up with the film-makers they have accepted as part of the festival. Although I understand that they had to deal with a lot of films for the festival, this is no excuse for their complacency and unprofessional attitudes. If they cannot handle a bunch of student filmmakers who have been participating in a competition that is meant to encourage a culture of film in the Qatar, they should not hold a festival in the first place. Finally, on the day of the festival, we had families come in to watch a screening of our films and you can imagine our surprise at finding out that the “AL-RAYYAN” Hall, the place which was supposed to screen the film, was unoccupied and there was no organizer present either to inform us of the misunderstanding that took place which caused the sponsors to withdraw their funds. No email, no calls, and no organizer present to answer our questions. When we finally received an opportunity to discuss with Mr. Abbas Arnout, the ‘famed’ director of the festival, we were met with gruff indifference. Once we questioned him regarding the ‘Promising Films’ category, he started to call his assistant and discretely mentioned in Arabic to “tell them what you told the others, make them happy and go away.” She blamed it on a lack of sponsors etc. but that did not still answer the question of their unprofessionalism in not having told us earlier. Although they said the decision was made in the “last minute of yesterday,” this still did not explain the lack of a “promising films” category in the printed form of the Program Guide, a publication which had to have been published at least a week before the start of the festival. And to top all that off, they tried to satisfy our needs by promising to give us “certificates of appreciation”, as if we were a bunch of high school students who only participated in this competition to get credit…

    A truly discouraging show of organization by Al Jazeera which, instead of encouraging a culture of film in Qatar among university students, went a long way in discouraging any student filmmaker about prospects of film in Qatar itself. This whole episode has turned out to be a fiasco for Al Jazeera im afraid. A Death of the Arts.

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