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.
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.
“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.