When Scandar Copti agreed to take up the position of the head of education for the Doha Film Institute in 2009, he had neither been to Qatar before, nor been involved in teaching in a full-time capacity. capacity. Back then, he was better known as a young Palestinian filmmaker whose first film, Ajami, was nominated for the best foreign-language film prize at the Academy Awards.
'I came to this totally strange place and I didn't have any expectations,' says Copti, sitting on a bench inside the Katara Cultural Village, a lavish complex that played host to the institute and its annual showcase, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF), last month. 'I came here to learn and share my experiences with others. And I discovered new worlds which I never knew existed.'
Copti and his colleagues have suddenly found themselves a front-row view of the political seismic shift sweeping across the Middle East and the Maghreb. Established two years ago to help foster a sustainable film industry in Qatar, the institute now readily advocates social changes in the Arab world.
Writing in her programme notes, the institute's executive director, Amanda Palmer, points out that the DTFF awarded Egyptian social drama Hawi with the best Arab film prize three months before pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Cairo; she also noted that this year's opening film, Black Gold, was filmed in Tunisia just as the movement demanding an end to Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime began, with its premiere two weeks ago taking place two days after the country's first democratic elections.
Copti's major contribution to the proceedings at the festival this year was an exhibition of 48 one-minute films made by participants of workshops, which took place from April to October in nine cities across the region. Titled 'Harrer, Harrer', which means 'Liberate' in Arabic, the showcase presents works in which young directors provide their own take on the concept of liberation.
'People are now having more freedom in expressing themselves, telling their own stories,' Copti says.
Inevitably, quite a few of the festival's documentaries revisited the Arab Spring, such as the Tunisian entry Rouge Parole and the Egyptian film On the Road to Downtown. But other social problems were given screen time in films such as Boxing With Her, which examines the tribulations of female boxers in Tunisia, and The Virgins, the Copts and Me, which investigates the cultural chasms between the Muslim and Christian communities in Egypt.