Real experience for Qatar's reel enthusiasts

Doha Film Institute gives aspiring Qatari movie makers the money and opportunities to make their own films and learn the business from industry veterans.

DOHA // As the sun dipped towards the horizon on the edge of the capital last week, fierce winds whistled across an open field, sending sand and dust swirling in the fading light. For the small, inexperienced film crew shooting a dream sequence of a little girl searching for her father, it could have been a nightmare. But after waiting more than an hour for calm, the director changed tack and used the weather to her advantage.

"The wind whipping around in that field, and the silhouetted shot of the father with the cowboy hat, really made it work," said the Qatari director, Sophia al Maria, 26. "The thing I learned is to be really flexible, make lemonade out of lemons." Flexibility seemed the watchword as eight young filmmakers of the Doha Film Institute's 10-minute film project began shooting this month, aiming for a screening before Hollywood A-listers at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in October. The final products will be months in the making, but the group's confidence, ambition and steep learning curve point towards a bright future for film in Qatar.

Created by Sheikha al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the daughter of the emir, the Doha Film Institute (DFI) puts many of Qatar's various film initiatives under a single umbrella. The institute is backed by the Dh256.9billion Qatar Investment Authority. It has partnerships with Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation, which restores and preserves significant films, and Maisha Film Lab, a cross-cultural filmmaking exchange programme founded by Indian director Mira Nair. The Fabulous Picture Show featured on Al Jazeera stars DFI's executive director Amanda Palmer. The DFI sponsors the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

The organisation's chief goal is to build a serious film industry in Qatar. The eight filmmakers selected for the project all made one-minute films for last year's inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival and had to submit a 10-page script to be accepted. Their first outing was the Tribeca Film Festival in April in New York, where they attended special events and screenings and spoke with industry professionals such as actress Patricia Clarkson and producer Ted Hope, who worked on The Ice Storm and 21 Grams.

When they returned to Doha, the filmmakers polished their screenplays and attended several weeks of pre-production workshops in June and early July. Shekhar Kapur, the director of Elizabeth, explained the finer points of directing. Scandar Copti, whose debut film, Ajami, was nominated for an Oscar, gave advice on working with actors. And Ziad Doueiri, the director and screenwriter of 1998's West Beirut, passed on some tricks of the trade.

"It's fun to be able to sit down with someone who wrote a story and be able to spot the problems and help them find solutions," said Doueiri, who acknowledged that not all the filmmakers were wildly talented. "When something is really bad, there's nothing you can say." Good or bad, the stories began to come to life a few weeks ago. Each director had to use several actors and at least three locations during five days of shooting.

Amir Mahmoud Ghonim started first, on July 9, making a film called Donia ("Life" in Arabic), a collage about the disconnect between people in Qatar. He was greatly helped by the insights of Sandi Sissel, a cinematographer who helped shoot Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Mr and Mrs Smith. She came to Doha for one of the workshops. "I learned so much from her lab about lighting and angles and framing and directing the photography," he said.

But Mr Ghonim never faced the sandstorm conditions that greeted Ms al Maria's shoot last week. "We have to make the climate work for the shoot," said Wafa al Saffar, 24, Ms al Maria's director of photography, while working a handheld camera in 50kph winds. Ms al Saffar, who is also directing her own film for the project, said she was looking forward to shooting her own film. "It's time to apply what we've learned."

She recalled what one director told her: "You will write one film, shoot another, and edit a third." Ms al Saffar had trouble finding actors. She might have followed the lead of Ms al Maria, who hired her sister and father for key roles. "Daddy, don't forget your line," she shouted into the wind during her shoot. Once the shoots are finished, the filmmakers are to work with an experienced editor and shape their five hours of film into a 10-minute short. They will screen this film for critics and directors in September, incorporate feedback and recut their work for a final submission that will be shown at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

"What would be nice at the end of the day is that when they show their movies, you like it," Doueiri said. "The end product is what matters. We want to see something on screen that we can look at and enjoy." Ms al Maria has greater ambitions. Born in Qatar, she's lived in the US, UAE, Egypt and the UK, where she studied contemporary and video art. Her film references the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and the music of Willie Nelson, telling the story of a teenage girl's relationship with her father as she begins to understand her own creativity.

Ms al Maria hopes her film increases appreciation of creative endeavours and their cultural value. "Sometimes talent, when you're young, is squandered because you feel you have to be an engineer or work in the oil industry," she said. "My hope is that my film kind of hints at that problem."