Writer-Director Mohammed Al Ibrahim on Taboo Stories, the Qatari Film Industry and his Upcoming Feature Bull Shark

On May 12th 2016, Innovation Films began releasing a selection of its shorts online. The move earned their YouTube channel some 12,000 views at the time of this writing, with roughly half going to Bidoon, the third film by Qatari writer-director Mohammed Al Ibrahim.

Initially screened in the 2012 Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF), the film traveled to over 30 countries, including Festival de Cannes and Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and preceded to win two awards for best short and another for best script.

The four years since the closing of DTFF have been rocky to some local filmmakers and while others debated the impacts of it on the filmmaking scene in Qatar, Al Ibrahim has kept himself busy: he went back to school.

He generously took time away from his busy schedule for a Skype call the week of Bidoon’s online release.

Mohammed D. Fakhro (MDF): Before we get into the film, tell us where you are right now.

Mohammed Al Ibrahim (MA): Right now I’m going to film school in Los Angeles and I’m working on a feature with Mohammed Al Hammadi, and hopefully by the time I graduate we’ll have a shooting draft ready.

MDF: So how did the story for Bidoon come about?MA_Profile

MA: It was a hot topic and one that resurfaces every now and then. For some reason in 2010-11, maybe for what was going on in the region, that triggered a bit of conversation.

One of our good friends was a big inspiration for it, too. He grew up here, his mom is Qatari and his dad isn’t. What’s really odd in his family is that his sister has citizenship but he doesn’t. She’s older than him but strangely back then they just didn’t care. All those things coming about really triggered the story.

MDF: How was the experience of telling it?

MA: To be honest I felt like an imposter. I’m not a bidoon and I actually only knew one growing up. He was kind of like my go-to guy when I was coming up with the plot to my story, asking, “Is this realistic?”

I was very careful about it not being the typical or expected film because I would rather it be something very honest and very true, even if it’s something really weird. Let’s be experimental about it and tell a story that’s a true portrait of two people’s lives who are trying to connect, and they can’t. What happens then? What do you do?

We have culture and we have religion, and the two are clashing big time because nowhere in our religion does it say “the son of so and so” cannot marry the “daughter of so and so.” When those two ideologies clash, what do we do? I think that was an essential question for us.

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MDF: So did you feel any constraints?

MA: I think making a film with a taboo subject comes with more mental constraints than physical. After the film was shot everyone started being scared about releasing it, about it being too touchy a subject, and that made me scared. It just turned into a mess until Ahmad Al Baker stepped in and just said, “Just finish the film. Let’s put it out. If people like it, they like it. If they don’t, then at least you did something you wanted to do.”

The filming itself was the most wonderful 5-day shoot even though it wasn’t shot in order. I actually didn’t fill in Aziz Al Dorani and Rana Jubara on what was going on. They didn’t know the story and I was trying to fill them in as we were going along and that was hard to do while jumping scenes. “Pretend this just happened” I would say and just let them go with it.

Aziz and Rana are friends in real life. I didn’t tell them much because it would show the separation that was in the story. Everything was a mess and chaotic to them and it made it organic to the story: they don’t have to act all confused because they were confused. They both did an excellent job, al hamd le Allah, and I had really good guys behind me, motivating me and producing it. I was very lucky.

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I get so much culture shock at school here in America when I talk to people about their experiences making film because when they talk about making a short film they talk about a matter of days, weeks at best. In the Gulf, if we talk about making a short film we talk about a matter of months, some times years.

What baffles me is that, al hamd le Allah, we have everything at our disposal: money, equipment, everything. But for one reason or another nothing gets done. It’s not one person’s fault, it’s just a matter of people not being hard enough on themselves to say, “Yalla, let’s keep moving.” Because when things get cold and the momentum dies, it’s so hard to get it back.

MDF: Support seems to be there, even if it is fragmented. So what’s missing?

MA: Patience and self-determination. I’m not trying to down our culture, but there’s something about it that is too laid back for the art of filmmaking. Even though it, or any art form for that matter, requires patience, it also needs prompt action in order to deliver. Otherwise you’re simply not cut out for it.

When it takes a long time we’d rather take the shorter and easier route and say “Hey, I made something” rather than putting in the effort and coming out with a result that actually makes a difference. Or create some sort of visual or audiovisual stimulation that people will talk about for months to come or even years. There’s none of that kind of drive just yet. When that drive comes then I think we will see some kind of industry flourish.

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MDF: Would you say there is an industry in Qatar?

MA: I think that in order to have an industry you need to have an established working community that works on film full-time. And we don’t have that just yet- we have the Doha Film Institute (DFI), we have the Ministry of Culture and Sports, and we have individual enthusiasts and investors.

It will happen when we start having productions year-round, when we start having sound stages that are dedicated purely and solely for the art of filmmaking, when we have a group of establishing filmmakers that lead a movement- and historically it happened all over the world, where a few establishing filmmakers came out of the woodworks and established some kind of standard. All of that hasn’t happened in Qatar yet. Soon, in sha Allah, but it needs another 5 to 10 years.

MDF: In your own work, there’s been a distinct evolution in your directing between Land of Pearls, your first short, and Bidoon. How would you describe your style and where do you see it headed?

MA: I’m part of the group of filmmakers who tend to be slow unravelers with their stories. I try to put what I see in my mind’s eye to kind of serve as a bouncing board of how I want others to see the film.

What I’m noticing now is that I’m more focused on stories that have more oomph to them. I’m looking for things that are more intense. I’m still going to be making dramatic films for the rest of my life but I think the pace of how my films get told is going to be a lot quicker and tighter. This is the direction I want to be moving in right now.

BIDOON.jpgMDF: Going from pearl diving in the 50’s, to zombies in the desert, working on a sadu documentary and then a romance of social classes- there’s depth and variety in your filmmaking to say the least. How do you go about choosing stories?

MA: I choose stories based on what keeps me up at night, the thing that will live in my mind for certain periods of time and won’t go away. When that happens I know it’s something that I’m really attached to and maybe I should explore it.

It has to motivate me to take risks. It has to be so good that I am willing to take up two years of my life, time that I will never get back and X amount of dollars before I see any sort of result.

MDF: So what’s currently keeping you up at night?

MA: A story of embezzlement and corruption, of debauchery, of lies, deceit and betrayal- a true story. It’s amazing that no one has heard of it or talks about it. It’s amazing that it even happened. And it’s amazing that so many people got away with it.

That film Al Ibrahim’s upcoming feature Bull Shark, a story “inspired by real events that took place during the second wave of economic growth in the GCC, from the late 1990s until 2011. When an up-and-coming banker gets hints of foul play from his most loyal investors, he is compelled to attempt to topple a regime stifled by greed, excess and power.”

MA: The story actually came to Mohammed Al Hamadi through a friend who lived the whole thing, and this guy just poured his heart out. We did our research afterwards and the more we dug in the more we realized that everything he said was true- and it’s not biased, it’s not aggressive. It’s actually a portrait; it’s a picture of what happened in the Gulf and is still happening to this day in a much smaller scale. The height of it was in 2005-06.

That’s what catapulted us to kind of delve more into this story and think that, you know what, maybe we are the right people to tell this story, maybe it will click with an audience and the only way for us to find out is if we give it a try.

When you get a head slam like that, that’s something that’s worth telling. That’s what keeps me up at night. This kind of story.

The film is currently in development and was recently awarded a grant by the DFI.

You can follow Mohammed Al Ibrahim at @nirvana57.

Interviewed by:

Mohammed D. Fakhro is a Qatari writer interested in how we tell and experience stories, particularly of people and cultures. You can find him at @MoeFakhro_