Doha’s new Qumra event is a career-changing event that connects experts with emerging filmmakers. Wendy Mitchell analyses what made the gathering so special.

One day the film industry will look back at the launch of the Doha Film Institute’s new Qumra event (March 6-11) as something that has changed the industry for the better. One festival veteran I spoke to called Qumra “the film discovery of the year” (and he wasn’t’ just talking about events). I spoke to dozens of attendees during my stay and they all agreed it was an exciting event that had been inspiring and useful for them. That’s a rare combination: inspiring and useful.

So what was Qumra, and why was it so great?

The Doha Film Institute has backed more than 200 films in its five-year existence – these are films from Emirati filmmakers, from Gulf filmmakers, but also from filmmakers with no direct ties to the region. The Institute knows that money isn’t the only help that film-makers need, and as such for the past two years they have been devising a new event to build on this ecosystem of support for emerging filmmakers. At one point they planned a festival to show works from first and second time feature filmmakers. But those plans were scrapped – smartly – to devise a different kind of event, more of a conference than a film festival (although there were some screenings for locals and industry).

The six-day event selected 29 DFI-backed projects that would most benefit from mentoring. They were a wide range, anything from a Qatari short in development to big international films that screened excerpts at picture lock stage.

The filmmaking teams had group and personal meetings with the invited international industry guests – the international film world’s A-listers from festivals, sales companies, script consultancies, financiers and more. The guest list was impressive – anyone from Toronto’s Cameron Bailey to Wild Bunch’s Vincent Maraval to Open City’s Jason Kliot and filmmaker Annemarie Jacir. The fact that senior programmers from Cannes made time to come to Qatar in the middle of their busiest month speaks volumes.

So Qumra is not quite a lab, not quite a co-production market, not quite a showcase. It’s something new.

I know some people will say that it’s all well and good for Doha to throw an event because they’ve got tons of money. Yes, of course they do have the resources to put on a top-level event like this, but it’s about more than money. Doha’s team (and valued external partners like artistic advisor Elia Suleiman and industry advisor Jovan Marjanovic) spent two years working on this programme and devising it in a bespoke way to best help the filmmakers it supports financially. Other institutions, even ones with more shallow pockets, should take note of this model.

The guests also included five Masters who showed past works, held public Q&As and a two-hour industry masterclass and also had private sessions with some of the filmmaking teams. Those Masters were Danis Tanovic, Elia Suleiman, Gael Garcia Bernal, Cristian Mungiu and Abderrahmane Sissako.

The organisers selected masters with strong points of view… none of them particularly ‘safe’ filmmakers or public speakers who would avoid controversy. And all were selected because of their willingness to ‘give back’ – they were reading scripts by the emerging filmmakers before their private meetings and told Screen they were encouraged by the quality of the work. Tanovic even plans to board one of his mentee’s projects as a producer.

Of course, for the visiting guests, there was the promise of sunshine, and staying in a five-star hotel. But this was not your usual festival jolly; most participants were in meetings, screenings, networking events and meals from 9:30 each morning until midnight. But nobody complained, everyone seemed to want to make the most of their time there and meet the most people they could. There was an atmosphere of learning and exchange that went both ways – not just experts talking at emerging talents, but both groups learning from each other.

I remember when I attended the second Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2010, guests were sad they weren’t given iPods like the attendees the first year. The festival director wouldn’t to the press to explain the festival’s strategy. The emphasis was way too much on the red carpet dresses (and not just for the stars). It just felt like an event with an identity crisis, I thought then.

But with an event like Qumra, the Doha Film Institute has now cemented its status as a serious powerhouse in world cinema, an organisation that has the clout to recruit top established talents and executives to help emerging filmmakers in a meaningful way, and the vision to plan an event that is both inspirational and useful.  The kinds of projects the DFI is backing are also becoming more and more relevant internationally – I’d expect at least one or two DFI-backed projects to be selected for Cannes this year.

Qumra also is an event that matches what Doha Film Institute tries to do year-round, with its financing initiatives, educational programmes, and audience development. It also is a nice counterpoint to the Ajyal Youth Film Festival, held in December to develop local audiences. They aims go hand in hand – emerging filmmakers need local audiences to want to see their films; local audiences need quality films to watch, and some of the Ajyal viewers of today will no doubt be Qumra participants of the future.

Any new event isn’t quite perfect, and DFI welcomes feedback to make Qumra even stronger in future years. But it was a great start to a new kind of film meeting that should become a model for others.  If you are lucky enough to be invited to Qumra 2016, don’t hesitate to go.