12/08/2014 09:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Doha Ajyal Diaries: Qumra, Closing Night and Salma Hayek on Freedom


Salma Hayek-Pinault and Fatma Al Remaihi, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Doha Film Institute and Director of the Ajyal Youth Film Festival, attend the Middle East premiere of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet at the Closing Night of the second Ajyal Youth Film Festival

"When water is shown a written word, it receives it as vibration and expresses the message in a specific form, like a visual code for expressing words. Water exposed to words 'Thank You' formed beautiful geometric crystals, no matter what the language. But water exposed to 'you fool' and other degrading words resulted in obviously broken and deformed crystals." -- Masaru Emoto, from his book Hidden Messages in Water.

Little more than a month ago, we lost a provocative pseudoscientist in the figure of Japanese author and entrepreneur Masaru Emoto. He studied water molecules and noticed a link between singing or uttering positive words of encouragement, and the beauty of water in crystallization. Negative words instead yielded ugly, darkened globs. The difference, seen through photographs on his website, is astounding. His passing was silent, perhaps because his findings have been called hocus pocus by some, but also because I think his vision seems so frightening that easily dismissing his ideas felt easier than accepting the fact that every word we say, every action, every sound carries a deep responsibility and a grand impact on this planet.

Cinema certainly does, in my humble opinion. Watching an inspiring film, one that makes us believe in the human race produces endorphins that inspire us to do better, be better. Then we also have quite a few examples of what a violent movie can do, in the settings of a mind already disturbed. Certainly we agree that most of us won't go out to destroy and kill after watching Die Hard or The Dark Knight, but I personally felt a cloud of pessimism descend upon me after watching the latter. And the ten year-old boy I watched it with spent the rest of the afternoon throwing a tantrum, face down on his grandmother's carpeted floor. Movies change us, for the better or worse, lets deal with it.

Thankfully, the pioneering organization that is the Doha Film Institute, and its leaders, understand this concept, fully and deeply. The projects they support, the artists they call upon to inspire and mentor, the films they screen all fall into a grand effort to help unite this divisive world of ours, one audience member at a time. I feel that infectious vibe while I watch a Doha Film Institute supported movie, always, but I felt it stronger and more impactful when I visited Qatar for the Ajyal Youth Film Festival, which just wrapped up with the MENA premiere of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. Talk about an author whose words that can create beautiful crystals, right?!

As true trailblazers, the Doha Film Institute announced this past Sunday a new concept with Qumra, an event which will center around mentoring and connecting emerging filmmakers, both from Qatar and around the world -- with a special focus on first and second-time filmmakers. As an interesting aside, the word 'camera' derives from what Arab scientist Alhazen called in Arabic 'Al Qumra'. Alhazen is considered the visionary of the 'Camera Oscura'.


The Qumra event, taking place from the 6th to the 11th of March, 2015 will be divided in three sections: The Qumra Master Classes, the Qumra Meetings and the Qumra Screenings.

For the Qumra Master Classes, four Masters have already been announced. They are filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, whose latest Timbuktu has been selected as the groundbreaking Mauritanian entry to the 2015 Foreign Language Oscar race; beloved Iranian actress Leila Hatami, whose performance was partly responsible for A Separation winning the Oscar two years ago; Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian Palme d'Or winning filmmaker of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the Bosnian Danis Tanović who wrote and directed No Man's Land, the Foreign Language Oscar winner in 2001. Fatma Al Remaihi, the Acting CEO of Doha Film Institute also confirmed at a press roundtable inside their offices in Katara that, "a couple more [Masters] are in the pipeline."

The Qumra Meetings will be a series of one-on-one workshops and mentoring sessions between the representative of the selected projects participating in Qumra. The producers and directors of up to 25 projects in development or post-production will be invited to participate in the event and they will include a number of emerging filmmakers from Qatar, as well as recipients of funding from the Institute's Grants Program.

The Qumra Screenings will be open to the public and will feature projects funded by the Institute through its grants and co-financing initiatives, as well as a series of films chosen by the Qumra Masters, accompanied by Q&A sessions.

2014-12-08-459989694.jpg Personally I find the presence of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman -- as Artistic Advisor to Qumra -- most exciting. He represents for me everything that is right with the filmmaking world and his work continues to challenge, move and inspire. With films like Divine Intervention and The Time That Remains, Suleiman has changed the present landscape and future of movie-making, over and then over again. He uproots us, he pushes us, his audience, to search deep into our soul for our own ideas, for our own solutions to the chaos of this world. I find it dangerous to watch his movies, because afterward I always think that no one else compares. But through his work with the Doha Film Institute, he will mentor and encourage new filmmakers, which is fantastic. Maybe some of those 'students' may one day be able to equal his genius, and maybe, without being disrespectful to the Maestro, even surpass him. But this will only be thanks to the help and nurturing they will have received from the Institute and Suleiman. It was haunting to hear Suleiman admit, during the press meet that, "when I was young and I wanted help, nobody gave it to me, I knocked on so many doors..." Thank goodness for willpower.

Al Remaihi pointed to the support of the Sarajevo Film Festival, who have an ongoing partnership with the Institute and the presence of Paolo Bertolin and Violeta Bava as Programming and Industry Advisors for Qumra. With an event this groundbreaking, I was glad to hear Al Remaihi admit that, "we are trying some formulas and it will be a learning cycle for us," but also point out that she is "confident that with Qumra, we are creating something of tangible value for Qatar and our region that will yield positive and productive results for all involved."

The talk inspired me to visit the nearby Ajyal Photography Exhibit inside one of the buildings in Katara Cultural Village. It was magical to view new works by emerging and established Qatari photographers alongside antique cameras and photo equipment, like the one pictured above.


From left to right Clark Peterson, Joan Gratz, Roger Allers, Salma Hayek-Pinault, Mohammed Saeed Harib and Jose Tamez

The following morning belonged to the team of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, for a press conference and some interviews to precede the closing night screening and red carpet for the film. It was Salma Hayek-Pinault who inspired me to look up Masaru Emoto and the inspiration did not end there. Hayek-Pinault shared the stage with two of the film's co-producers Clark Peterson and Jose Tamez, the film's director Roger Allers (of Lion King fame) and the animators-slash-filmmakers of two of the segments, the Oscar-winning Joan C. Gratz and Mohammed Saeed Harib, who is known and beloved for his wondrous, super successful TV series Freej. Hayek-Pinault pointed to the unifying power of the cinematic adaptation of a book that has been read by "one hundred million people," and said she hoped the film could be "something that would bridge the world, the way the book did." She gave credit where credit is due by saying that "first on board for financing was DFI," and that she felt "the world coming together to try and make this film."

Allers said his goal for unifying all the segments which make up this animated "massage for the soul" -- as my friend Dan called it -- was to "move in and out of them gracefully." I think the key to his success as a filmmaker of animated masterpieces lies in the fact that he admits, "I never want to underestimate children," and continued that anyway, "Kahlil Gibran's purpose was to tap into a place where we are all connected -- the larger soul."

But the line to end all lines from Hayek-Pinault turned out to be her own definition of freedom, which I managed to ask her in a more personal setting. The poem "On Freedom" in the film really hit a chord for me and so I asked what she thought, to which she replied, "freedom is having instincts and the courage to follow them through... That silence to hear the right voice is freedom."

2014-12-08-460050814.jpg With Mohammed Saeed Harib, I talked a bit after the conference as well, and it was a personal highlight. I've laughed and loved and learned with the characters of Freej, those animated Emirati grandmothers who showed me the soul of the UAE. Perhaps they can be bigger than life, but they are always made with love and Harib is a man to watch, especially when one witnesses the versatility of his work from one project to another. In Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet his segment "On Good and Evil" showed a new, aquarel side of his talent I hadn't witnessed before, and certainly wasn't expecting!

I asked Harib about the CNN Influencer of the Year 2014 forum I'd just watched on TV that morning, in which he participated. Why choose from the final list -- which consisted of three potential influencers, the world's refugees, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS -- al-Baghdadi and not the refugees, who are affecting the world around us so importantly? Harib's answer was everything I would expect from an innovator like him, "al Baghdadi is the only influencer there who is influencing all the influencers." He continued, "unfortunately there are good influences and bad, and this happens to be a very bad influencer, yet a very powerful one."

The evening belonged to the closing night film and the red carpet sparkled with Salma Hayek-Pinault in a stunning black gown with lace corset. A performance by Lebanese maestro Gabriel Yared, who composed the music for Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet but also beloved classics like The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, featuring some of his works brought me to tears. Not to lessen the impact of Yared's beautiful music, or his passionate statement "beauty will prevail" in this world, but moving me to tears was an easy thing to do in Doha since the hospitality of the organization as well as the beauty of the city touched me deeply. Add to that all the friends I've made through the Ajyal Youth Film Festival, and the ones I reconnected to thanks to the beloved event, it was truly a special moment in time that I will remember forever.

2014-12-08-10419546_492563517553561_5419207082353534360_ncopy.jpg Oh, and perfectly in tune with all the selfie-mania going on at Ajyal, I did manage to snap one on the red carpet, courtesy of Qatar-based director Ali Ali Ali, a favorite person and talented filmmaker.

Walking back to my hotel from the closing night party at the Four Seasons, breathing in the crisp Doha night air with the full moon overhead and chaperoned by the perfect company of extraordinary filmmakers was a dream come true. Thank you Doha Film Institute, I will be back.


Top image, Elia Suleiman, The Prophet press conference and Mohammed Saaed Harib courtesy of the Doha Film Institute; selfie courtesy of Ali Ali Ali, all used with permission.