Amal Ahmad Al-Muftah
Whether you are watching YouTube videos, movies, television or going to the cinema there is no denying that mass media plays a major role in modern society. Each genre and mode provide a different purpose and meets a unique demand, from entertainment to education. So In this interview, we go behind the scenes of the filmmaking industry in order to meet one of Qatar’s female filmmakers: Amal Ahmad Al-Muftah. To understand what the film industry in Qatar is like and where do Qatari women fit into this complex sector? So, who is Amal?
I am a 23-year-old filmmaker, and I am currently in my senior year as a Communications student in Northwestern University. Prior to that I graduated from Qatar Academy (QA). In fact, QA is where I was first introduced to filmmaking and decided that it was the career that I wanted to pursue.
What made you decide to be a filmmaker?
I am a very curious person and have always been interested in many fields. This made it incredibly difficult for me to settle on one career path as I saw myself in a different profession every week. By the time I was in high school, however, I knew that it was time to take my future more seriously, so I decided to attend a program that exposed me to the work environment of prospective jobs. I was able to experience a range of careers, from working in a magazine company, to becoming a member of a multinational corporation. It was a great experience but the only issue was that I enjoyed all of them and could not quite pinpoint the field that I truly inclined towards. This held true until I took my first film class and realized that it was the career I wanted to pursue. I always enjoyed films prior to that; I went to the cinema every week and I would watch a movie a day at home, but I never considered filmmaking as an option until then. I remained hesitant about filmmaking as a prospective career for a long time, even when I started making movies. I succeeded greatly in my math and science classes at school, so my parents were especially surprised when I voiced my interest in pursuing a career in media and communications. I remember the exact instance that settled their doubts about filmmaking as a career – in addition to my doubts.
Model United Nations (MUN), a club that allowed us to learn about diplomacy and international relations, was hosting a festival under the theme of documentary films: the 2014 THIMUN Qatar Film Festival. As part of the theme, they had held a competition for students to make a documentary that touched on human rights. I decided to join just three weeks before the deadline and revive an old film idea that I had had, revolving around the lives of the hamalis (porters) in Souq Waqif. As soon as I received the permit to film, I rushed to Souq Waqif with my camera, tripod, and microphone, and my brother as my only crew member. I had initially called one hamali with the plan of covering his experiences on the job. However, we had the fortune of learning much more about him, about his background and the life that brought him to work in Souq Waqif. By the end of the day we had footage of three hamalis, two of whom had joined us in the course of the interview. The film took around a week to edit and submit to THIMUN.
Once I received the link to the documentary, I posted it on Twitter and within three days I had more than 100,000 views. I was extremely overwhelmed by the amount of retweets, mentions, and WhatsApp messages that I was receiving. The documentary inspired a lot of charity efforts and small initiatives for the benefit of the hamalis. Only 18 years old at the time, I was incredibly grateful to have contributed to such a cause. My parents were also able to see the impact that films can have. It was this positive reaction to the documentary that convinced family of the potentials of filmmaking.
What genre of films do you see yourself making?
I like narratives, to be able to create a story, but I also like documentaries and being able to record the existing state of affairs. I don’t think that I can pick one genre, especially since the film industry in Qatar is very limited in terms of its members, I don’t want to limit myself by specializing in one. For now, I want to try everything to do with filmmaking – from documentaries, to narratives, to commercials.
What is the filmmaking industry in Qatar like?
It is a very female-dominated industry. I remember attending Made in Qatar, a screening initiative founded by Ajyal that screens all the films made in Qatar during the course of the year. Over the six years that it has existed, most of the participants have been female, which is a pleasant surprise given that most of the biggest film industries, like Hollywood or Bollywood, are incredibly male dominated. I really enjoy seeing their films, the quality, and even the progression of the filmmakers over the years – I personally participated in the first and fifth year and hope to participate in the sixth as well.
Have you faced any challenges, either within or outside of filmmaking?
Personally, it has been challenging to make time for my other interests and hobbies and to incorporate them into my lifestyle along with my filmmaking career. I am interested in music, sports, and adventure. I play both the oud and the guitar, I love to attend sailing or scuba diving courses, and I also love to travel. All these things make up who I am as a person, in addition to my passion for filmmaking.
On a professional level, as a female in the filmmaking industry, it is vital that you maintain a strong reputation. It is very important that I am self-aware as a filmmaker; I have to be careful of everything that I say and do, and the way I carry myself. Furthermore, as one of the youngest on set I have had to strive to prove myself as a filmmaker because I work alongside professionals who have been in this field for as many years as I have been alive. It was very important that I showed leadership skills and represented both myself and my culture in the best image possible. With time I have been able to gain the respect of my peers by showing that I have a vision and passion for filmmaking.
How do you balance between filmmaking and university, and do the two ever coincide?
I draw a hard line between the two. My studies in Northwestern are focused on Communications, not filmmaking. While there are a few classes relevant to filmmaking, most of the work I do is independent. As for the balance between the two, my classes in Northwestern are very time-consuming, they can take up to three or four hours a day each, so it is definitely a lot of work to balance. Accordingly, it is very important that I manage my time well. I mostly try to divide my time between my different hobbies and commitments. For instance, I make sure that I dedicate 8 hours a night to sleep and the rest of my 24 hours I dedicate to filmmaking and my university studies. My time is very valuable; I cannot afford to waste it and try to manage every second accordingly.
Would you encourage other women to join the film industry in Qatar?Would you encourage other women to join the film industry in Qatar?
For sure, it is a great community. In fact, filmmaking requires that we rely on one other. If you want to make a film, you need to have a team. When I worked on Smicha most of the people I collaborated with were Qatari women from different majors. One of my friends, a fashion designer from Virginia Commonwealth University was the costume designer, and another friend, an interior designer, was part of the team as well. It was a bit challenging at first because designing for a film set was not something they had done before, but it was a challenge that they approached with open arms. The fact that they were my friends also helped; we were very transparent and communicated clearly with each other. Although we ended up arguing a few times, it was definitely a memorable experience. It was very different from working with professionals, which usually requires a very formal environment. I would especially encourage Qatari women to become filmmakers. There is a general lack of filmmakers in the MENA region in general, not just in Qatar, and it is very important that filmmakers are familiar with the country that they are based in, in terms of the system and the culture.
What skills and qualities did you gain from being a filmmaker?
I was never a great communicator; I have always been very shy and found it difficult to articulate my thoughts properly. This has changed dramatically since I became a filmmaker; it has helped me overcome my shyness and allowed me to open up. I am now able to easily communicate who I am, what I like, and what I believe in. It also taught me to be responsible and cautious of the messages that I send because I am aware of the impact that films can have. It definitely opened my eyes to the world.
My mindset has also changed a lot. Being a filmmaker, you cannot simply clock out after working hours because even when I am off set, I feel that I see everything through the camera lens. I could be having coffee with my friends and will find myself noticing the tiniest details of the room around me: the way the light hits a glass door, the angles that I could best capture it through, and so on.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Sleep 8 hours a day. Trust me, it will change your life.
- Interview written by Fatima AL Naimi .
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.