Discovery: AJ Al

Unlike many Arab countries, in Qatar more women work than men. In the field of culture, they are the spearhead of cinema in the small emirate. Meeting with a young artist from Dohan who does not mince her words.

After two missed dates, AJ Al-Thani races to not be late for the last one. She quickly gets out of her car and puts her abaya back on properly. “Sorry, I’m doing a thousand things right now for my last film,” she says breathlessly. A few sips of black coffee later, the 29-year-old single woman comes to her senses, puts her phone on vibrate to prevent it from ringing constantly. Jawhara (“jewel” in Arabic), her real name, is a filmmaker in Qatar and already has her own production company, Creative Nomads. “We produce films, TV programs, advertisements, etc.”, she explains at full speed when her next meeting takes place only three hours later.

A young girl aware of her privileges
Cinema is above all a passion for the young artist, a passion that has turned into a profession, far from any lucrative objective in this country where Qatari youth is born on a gold mine. And AJ is aware of it, she is a privileged person. “I’ve loved watching movies since I was little, I spent seven years as an only child and that was all I had to do. It was a source of education and communication for me, as if I was part of this universe. I had the chance to go to the cinema often, it was something new at the time because the first cinema opened its doors in Doha at the end of the 1990s. This is when the “revelation” occurs. “I saw Star Wars (1977), it was crazy. Everything fascinated me in this film. I asked my father how I could do to go to this universe, and he answered me that I had to become a film director, because in fact, this universe did not exist”, she recalls. And the dream becomes reality. Thanks to his father, “who was still surprised that[elle] don’t become an engineer or a doctor”, the young girl at the time obtained a camera and began to film her family and friends. In 2010, she joined the Doha Film Institute. Created by the wife of the emir the same year, this organization aims to train future Qatari filmmakers, develop their projects, invest in films by international authors and set up festivals. Alongside the artistic objective, Qatar already at the time wanted to export itself and shine in the cinema sector, to compete with Egypt and thus increase its soft power far from the hydrocarbons which made the fame of the small gas emirate. .

AJ Al-Thani’s hobby then turns into a full-fledged job. “At that time, I had some doubts about my ability to make it a job, I understood that it was different from what I lived as a hobby,” she concedes, sketching a smile putting her scarf back on her hair. With such energy in voice and gesture, it’s no wonder that locks of hair appear regularly.

Then begins the apprenticeship of cinema, via various workshops set up by the institute. And in 2016, the young girl from Doha finally made her first short film.

The desert as a horizon line
Political issues are absent from Qatari films and the majority of them evoke the family. A theme that the original citizen AJ Al-Thani did not choose. “I am a very modern person, I grew up in this futuristic city of Doha, and yet it is the desert that fascinates and attracts me.” A theme that could be understood since Qatar was only a desert territory until a short time ago. And the director recounts her many trips to the arid zones of Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the Emirates, Morocco… “When I go to the desert, I understand my culture, I am more spiritual. In the desert, I explore who I am. A lot of people say: “Come on, we’re making a film about a romantic breakup”, and then they’re going to make a film about divorce, like all films of the same genre. Me, I want to connect with the desert. I do not look towards the city, but towards the desert, it is my horizon. The desert then, but in which there is life; the artist’s first short film evoked the unbreakable bonds between two brothers who accidentally kill their father. “The desert makes it possible to talk about many things, be it society, patriarchy, etc., specifies AJ Al-Thani, whose speaking rate seems to calm down as she evokes her favorite theme. My second short film tells the story of a woman who flees from Mosul in Iraq. A film that turned out to be a real challenge since it was shot in Doha, geographically at the antipodes of the Iraqi city. “I managed to identify places in the suburbs of Doha that could be related to Iraqi architecture. These buildings were in fact destroyed for unsanitary conditions just after I filmed them.”

No wonder then that the scenario of his next film (just like obviously the following ones) takes place in the desert of Palestine; this one will tell the story of a young woman hated by her father because she is not a boy. “The desert is really the horizon with which I want to work,” she repeats, as if it were still necessary for her to convince herself of her choice.

A proud woman
This poetry and this desire to escape are found in AJ Al-Thani’s view of the role of women in this very patriarchal society that surrounds him. “It’s complex to explain, but I believe that women may have a more assertive artistic sensitivity than men,” she says after a long silence of reflection. It is true that in Qatar, 60% of the films made are by women. “In the environment in which I evolve, I am respected for what I am.” And to continue: “I believe that in fact the real reason is that women here have more things to say than men, in particular concerning society. They have much more courage to express themselves. Men think they’re good the way they are…” “It’s an essential raison d’être for an artist to have something to say that others don’t, she insists. You want to say something to the world that no one has expressed before. My future belongs to me, no one can force it. I believe that women have more courage than men to say such a thing in the Middle East, or even in Qatar. It is the artistic path that allows a woman to speak to the masses. Is it difficult to feel “being” a woman and free when you leave your home covered in black from head to toe? The artist sweeps the question aside, both literally and figuratively. “In Qatar, I wear the abaya because it’s just part of the culture. When I travel abroad, I don’t wear it. I am a Qatari and proud of my culture. It is not a religious symbol. It is a misconception to believe that we are oppressed.” And the young woman to open her abaya wide and proudly show that underneath, she is wearing shorts, sneakers, a small tight t-shirt, bracelets… “There is oppression in the Middle East , in the Arab world, which I show in my first film. But I feel privileged and I take advantage of this privilege to talk about those who don’t have it. Me, I support everything a woman can wish for herself, whatever she chooses. An astonishing and explosive opinion seen from the West, but which above all reflects the anachronism of Qatar and its population in the Arab world.

Discovery: AJ Al-Thani, a proud and determined Qatari filmmaker – Lequotidien – Journal d’information Générale