Compared with the previous international film festivals that have taken over Doha for one week each November since 2009, this was an altogether different affair. There were no A-list film stars to speak of, the red-carpet events were largely free from screaming photographers and star-spotters and the schedule wasn’t exactly weighed down with major Hollywood titles. But the inaugural Ajyal Youth Film Festival, which closed on Saturday, appeared to do everything it had set to achieve.
The five-day event, one of two film festivals established by the Doha Film Institute to replace the now-retired Doha Tribeca Film Festival, was almost entirely focused on children and it was children who were the clear priority, both in terms of the programming and the events going on around the screenings.
Set solely in the Katara Cultural Village, the vast and impressively calming enclave for performance and creativity set beside Doha’s coastline, the five-day event featured a diverse line-up of films from across the world. From documentaries about children forced to travel huge distances to have an education (On the Way to School), dramas about classroom bullying in Holland (Regret) right through to animated fantasy romps with chubby dragons (Justin and the Knights of Valour), there was a striking range of entertaining and thought-provoking subject matters for Qatar’s younger population to get their teeth into.
And get their teeth into them they did, largely thanks to the innovative new jury, made up of about 400 kids from more than 20 schools and universities across Qatar, who were divided into three groups according to their age and assigned film to watch each day. Many even had the chance to speak to the filmmakers in Q&A sessions following the screenings.
For Sultan Al Mannai, a 10-year-old Qatari, it was The Painting Pool, an Iranian drama about a mentally challenged couple trying to give their son a normal life, that led the way as a possible contender for his top choice. “It was very emotional, it really stole my heart,” he said, before running off to watch another film.
The theme for this year (there will be a new one each time) was anime. Having opened with The Wind Rises by the genre’s grand master Hayao Miyazaki, there were several other titles in the schedule, along with an entire building in Katara dedicated to the subject. Japanese animation might seem a curious choice for a Middle Eastern festival, but for the Qataris taking part it seemed to have a special place in their hearts.
“This is everything we grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s, there’s a definite anime subculture here,” admitted Abdulla Al-Mosallam, the curator of the Otaku exhibition, which featured Japanese-influenced artwork by several local illustrators and a room filled with collections of anime-inspired toys and figurines (including Abdulla’s own).
Over the road in the Sandbox exhibition, interactive installations such as green screens (in front of which children where videoed and transplanted into a miniature city), 3-D printers and a virtual, motion-controlled art canvas were on hand to keep children – and their parents – occupied.
For the festival director Fatma Al-Remaihi, whose son was among the young jury members, the success of the festival lay in its ability to mask education within fun. “My son is having the time of his life. But the best bit is that he doesn’t realise he’s learning a lot at the same time.”