Posted on April 13, 2020

2020 has been an important year for France and Qatar. As part of Qatar Museum’s annual cultural exchange program, the Qatar-France Year of Culture has focused on the growing relationship between the two nations, with a series of exhibitions, festivals and other events planned throughout the year to convey all that Qatar has to offer to the world.

But as both France and Qatar battle the coronavirus pandemic – like most countries in the world – many Year of Culture events have been cancelled or postponed. However, one event that went ahead before the pandemic took hold showed the importance of culture, and especially film, in keeping people connected – a message that resonates even louder now, as communities are increasingly asked to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

The Clermond-Ferrand Short Film Festival showcased the best of short films from around the world. Among the guests at this year’s event were a series of films from the Doha Film Institute, with several filmmakers from Qatar Foundation (QF) exhibiting their work and contributing to broadening cultural understanding between France and Qatar. In Alessandra El Chanti’s Revive the Lira’s Glory, 22-year-old Ibrahim Sultani paints portraits of Lebanese legends on banknotes in the hope of helping to compensate for some of the currency’s lost financial value, by giving it emotional value instead.

El Chanti, who is a graduate of QF partner university Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) and has worked for QF in its ability-friendly sports programs, says her film – and film in general – can help change narratives about different cultures, nationalities and people from around the world. “It is a medium that can take us to places we have never been to, and enable us to learn about people and cultures that we have never met or experienced,” says El Chanti. “Having films created by Qatari citizens and residents being showcased at the Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival is remarkable because, while the French and Qatari cultures are very different, it is a way for audiences to get a glimpse of the type of storytelling that exists in our part of the world.”

While the festival was an opportunity to showcase Qatari cinema talent to France, the event was also an honor for many filmmakers who have been longtime admirers of France’s famous cinema tradition. Dhabya Al-Muhannadi, a graduate of NU-Q, says she has been enamored with French cinema since she first saw the film Cléo de 5 à 7 in school. “It was the first time I had encountered such content and it was beautifully shot – show don’t tell,” says Al-Muhannadi, whose short film Maha’mel explores Doha’s shipping industry. “French cinema has its own style that is different from Italian or Hollywood cinema. It’s very artsy, avant garde, and bohemian.”

Shortly after the Clermond-Ferrand Short Film Festival, France went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has put even more importance on the role of cinema in connecting communities both near and far. Director Nada Bedair, also an NU-Q graduate, says the current pandemic – and subsequent lockdowns – have had an impact on her desire to work in film. “Most of us graduates love film and want to be filmmakers, but the more I look at the average day of people [in lockdown], there is an increased demand for quality content,” says Bedair, whose film Paper Kite follows two young girls from a strict Catholic school on an illicit kite-making mission. “This is especially true for content coming from Arab regions, which are not as well represented.”

Bedair says that film can bridge the gaps in understanding, especially at a time when travel restrictions and social distancing mean that people can’t learn about one another in the same way. “With film’s visual language, people don’t need to speak the same language,” says Bedair. “Film can bridge cultures and bring people together that wouldn’t be able to be physically together. [The coronavirus pandemic] just increased the value of the craft.”

For director Al-Muhannadi, film has the ability to awaken the senses – not just through visuals – and has the power to transport people and allow them to experience another world. It’s especially relevant now when many people are looking for an escape from current affairs. “I want everyone [watching my film] to enjoy the colors, sounds and details of this universe,” says Al-Muhannadi, whose film uses the whirring of saws and heavy machinery to pull viewers into the world of boat construction. “Even if you close your eyes and just listened, you would feel like you’re looking at the scenes.”

As the Qatar-France Year of Culture continues in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, virtual events and artistic mediums will become increasingly important. Current events have only made the three filmmakers more determined to develop their craft. Bedair has applied to an MFA program to further enhance her skills, while Al-Muhannadi is working on a script about the evolving Qatari folklore tradition. Meanwhile, El Chanti is enrolled in an MFA program in documentary media while promoting a documentary she made about a Palestinian American music composer who directs the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at the University of Chicago. “Cinema is one of the most powerful tools that exist in our time that help alter perceptions and misconceptions,” says El Chanti. “The universal is found in the specific and there is no language more universal than the language of film.”