Historically, the Oscars red carpet is filled with an array of cinched-waist gowns designed by the world’s top couturiers. In contrast, the gold-accented, straight-silhouette bisht donned by Doha Film Institute (DFI) CEO Fatma Hassan Al Remaihi at the 2018 ceremony instantly delivered a message of power and poise. “I believe that fashion is not at odds nor does it contradict your professional role,” she comments. “It is important to bring a sense of style to your wardrobe – more so, an understated elegance.”
But if the CEO makes headlines on the red carpet, her biggest contribution is behind the scenes of the cinema industry. Leading burgeoning Qatari filmmakers and even those across the region has been her modus operandi since her appointment to the role in 2014. The regional film industry is booming, and at the heart of this development sits the DFI. It’s a non-profit, independent hub and resource center that aims to foster a Qatari and regional film industry on par with the best in the world. By providing networking and collaborative opportunities, financing, and more, the DFI wants to elevate regional film to the highest level, as evidenced by the recent awards-sweeping successes of Nadine Labaki’s Capharnäum (2018) and the 2017 documentary Of Fathers and Sons.
Founded in 2010 by HH Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the DFI has bold plans for the future of Arab film. “I believe that film as a medium is strongly related to the rich storytelling tradition of the Arab world,” says Al Remaihi. “Look at our classics: the stories, despite being handed down over generations by word of mouth, are rich in visual elements.”
Al Remaihi guides the overall direction of the institute, focusing on the promotion of film culture in Qatar and bolstering its standing on the regional and international stage. Ranked among the top 500 most influential business leaders shaping the global entertainment industry by Variety International from 2017-2019, Al Remaihi stands at the forefront of regional and international cinema. A Qatar University English literature graduate, Al Remaihi had always loved the arts, but her journey to DFI was a long one. “I found myself working at the Diwan [a government arm] for the better part of eight years after serving on the Supreme Council of Family Affairs for the first three years after college. Serving in Diwan was a privilege, but ultimately, it was not the path for me,” shares Al Remaihi.
Growing up, she was exposed to a wide range of cinema, from Hollywood, Bollywood, and the Arab world through tapes and television and there was always lively discussion taking place around film. “What I would call a defining moment for me was watching Titanic at a movie theater in Qatar; it was the first time I had watched a film on the big screen in my home country – and what an experience it was! The film touched us all and the cinema experience stayed with me,” she says. When, years later, she read about the formation of a national film committee, she jumped at the chance to be a part of it. Today, she is grateful to contribute to building a film ecosystem in the country and enjoys supporting young talents from around the world to fulfil their cinematic aspirations.
With a mandate to aid the development of local creative talents, the DFI works to communicate stories about Qatar and the region to the wider world. Over the past decade, the institute has built a wide-ranging support system for regional cinema, from education and financing to events designed to promote and foster Arab talent. “In this new golden age of Arab cinema, the institute supports globally acclaimed stories and important new voices to increase diversity in perspectives and encourage cross-cultural dialogue,” shares Al Remaihi. “At the Doha Film Institute, we believe that arts and films are powerful tools to bridging mutual understanding between people.”
The CEO is also director of the institute’s annual events, including Qumra, an event and now also online portal, digital event space, and resource hub, and a unique incubator intended to assist first- and second-time filmmakers from around the world. Alongside Qumra is the Ajyal film festival, DFI’s annual celebration of film. Due to run this November, Ajyal is “a nurturing space where youth are empowered to reach beyond physical differences to find their creative voice,” she offers. Youth from around the world will come together in a series of programs designed to help them learn about culture through curated film screenings, workshops, and discussions. The Ajyal jury evaluates the films not only as entertainment, but as pieces that can bring about social change. It is hoped that the young jurors will take the lessons learned and play important roles in their home communities. “Ajyal offers a unique opportunity to plant the seeds of diversity, engagement, and inclusion for our future,” offers Al Remaihi. “By investing in local talent, DFI is strengthening Qatar’s cultural legacy. We train more than 150 Qataris annually – 1 150 to date – in a wide range of world-class programs, and we have supported more than 65 films by Qatari filmmakers.”
The role of women is becoming more important, too. “In the Arab world, which is fast breaking stereotypes and misconceptions about women, especially in their contribution and role in cinema, female filmmakers are creative leaders that are crafting compelling stories with global resonance,” says Al Remaihi. “I can say with evidence and conviction that there is a much larger percentage of female filmmakers in our country and the wider Arab region than the rest of the world.” While none of DFI’s initiatives are prescriptive, it seems certain that the number of women becoming involved in their programs will increase. “Our initiatives are strengthening Qatar’s cultural legacy and taking Qatar to the world, through the stories and creativity of our emerging talent such as Amal Al Muftah, Rawda Al Thani, and AJ Al Thani, to name a few,” says Al Remaihi. Qatari films have been screened at more than 60 international festivals, with highlights including Under Her Skin by Meriem Mesraoua being selected to compete at Venice last year, and Muftah’s Sh’hab winning eight awards.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has posed serious roadblocks to day-to-day operations. “Despite the challenges that we faced in 2020, we dug deep and worked together to make the best of our circumstances by pivoting to bring value to an online program for projects and participants to ensure that support for emerging talent would continue uninterrupted,” says Al Remaihi. Qumra, DFI’s online portal, has been the perfect tool through which to continue their work. Initiatives carried on year-round and unique events, such as the 2020 hybrid of the Ajyal film festival, served to alleviate the pain of the pandemic “by combining the vast access to expertise that we have in-house and in our community of allies,” she shares. “We are very proud of how we have found ways for progress to continue and for audiences to experience the magic of cinema.”
Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia