Notes from Distant Lands

Notes from Distant Lands

In Doha, film experts on their craft

Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski, Oscar
Love And War: A still from Cold War, a love story between a man and a woman set in post-war Poland.

Qumra in Arabic means “camera”, an apt name for a Doha-based event which is a platform to bring together varied stakeholders in cinema: globally-known directors, young filmmakers just starting out and film festival directors and distributors looking out for new projects and talent. In the five years since it began in 2015, Qumra has grown to include many more filmmakers from the Qatar region, which is one of the chief objectives of the Doha Film Institute. “Our main mission is to bring voices from the region to the world, voices which have been misrepresented or absent for years,” says Fatma Hassan Alremaihi, chief executive office, Doha Film Institute, and Qumra director. “We want to support new filmmakers and original stories. Eighty per cent of our grants go to the Arab region.” The selected filmmakers can get mentored at each step: scriptwriting, filmmaking, post-production, and, finally, finding avenues for release.

The fifth edition had a bunch of “Qumra Masters”, among them Cold War (2018) director Pawel Pawlikowski and Roma (2018) production designer Eugenio Caballero, as well as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, master of slow-burn horror, like Creepy (2016). The legendary Agnes Varda, still making cinema at 91, couldn’t travel because of health concerns. In conversations with the invited press, they spoke of how and why they make movies.

Pawel Pawlikowski, Director, Cold War

There were remarkable parallels between two films which were up for Best Foreign Academy Award this year. Both Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma which won, and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, which didn’t, were gorgeously shot in black and white. Both harked back to the past, shaped by the memories of their directors. Both were imbued with haunting nostalgia.

Pawlikowski, 61, the celebrated Polish director who got an Oscar for Ida (2013), used to make documentaries when he was “the only person filming the landscape he was in”. After the “digital revolution where anyone with a camera is a filmmaker”, he moved to fiction. Here, he speaks about what filmmaking means to him and his politics:


For someone who makes, in your own words, “black-and-white arthouse cinema no one’s bothered about”, did the Oscar for Ida change your life?

It’s hard to quantify. If I had to go to the United States and start a career there, it may have been different. But I was going back to Poland to make films in Polish with unknown actors and raise budgets there. It didn’t change my life vastly but it gave me a kind of breathing space. In the current civilisation that is as much as you can get (laughs). Not that I take the Oscars very seriously. But in today’s world, if the Oscars are the Olympics game, it’s quite nice to win a medal.

Did the success of Cold War surprise you? It released across the world.

There was a great reception by a small minority to Ida. But everyone liked Cold War. I think it was the love story, and the rediscovery of the Polish folk music which had been swept aside when Communism fell (1989). Cold War is a huge hit, and it’s a nice feeling.

Cold War, director, Oscar
Pawel Pawlikowski, Director, Cold War

How important do you think it is for a filmmaker to be political?

I’m not so overtly political. I talk about politics, but I don’t foreground it. My films have people who tend to be in paradoxical, complicated relationship with history, with how things are. When you show history through people, rather than trying to teach, it is better.

The world is being turned into a banal narrative. The liberal narrative is equally banal, just not so murderous. It is so shallow, so monotonous — if you like this, you must also like this. I don’t like this binary at all. I think art should cut across it… also journalism. When economy dictates what we do, it is not surprising that the majority’s reaction to everything is simplistic, moronic. This nationalism has not come out of nowhere. It’s frightening, this virtual reality which dehumanises our behaviour, our films. I don’t want to engage on these terms politically. I want to make things that come at an angle, cut across lines, and talk about humans who are interesting.

You see each film as a ‘discovery of the self’. Do you know who you are?

I am calmer about who I am. I am old… enough to know there’s nothing I can do about it. This is it.

Roma, Oscar, Alfonso Cuarón
Nostalgia Lane: A still from Roma, a vivid portrait of a domestic worker’s journey set in 1970s Mexico

Eugenio Caballero, Production Designer, Roma

There’s a crucial aspect of a film we, the viewers, sometimes take for granted. But a good director knows the value of a good production designer, and Eugenio Caballero, 47, is one of the best. His body of work is marked by his love for art and storytelling.

His latest outing, Roma, is brilliant. Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning film skillfully entwines memories and meaning, but it wouldn’t have been the film it is if it hadn’t been for just how right it looks: both Cuarón and Caballero have worked in tandem to tell the story. Caballero, who calls himself a “Spielberg generation kid”, having grown up on Jaws (1975) and ET (1982), speaks about the art of remembering, the craft of production design, and what it takes to be good in the field:

Of all your work, is Roma the most special?

No, it’s just the newest. Each of my films is special, for different reasons.

Did your memories of Mexico City and Alfonso Cuaron’s have to align?

The film was about his memories of his childhood, so I had to align with his vision. He is 10-11 years older than me, but it helped that we grew up in the same neighbourhood. It was a very interesting process. When he would talk in so much detail, I had to ask him how he remembers so much, because I have erased memories of my childhood. Then I discovered he had been exercising his muscle for memory while he was compiling details for his script.

Memory is like that. You open a door, it leads to another, and then another. One of the most important things for me about Roma is that I recovered my childhood memories.

EUGENIO CABALLERO, Production Designer, Roma (Courtesy: Doha Film Institute/Qumra)

You are a storyteller. Do you think of directing a film?

Some production designers do move on to direction, but I would like to tell the stories in my field. I think it is a privilege to do what I do, to influence the final result. I feel I’ve opened up a space and I’m playing like a child. It’s fun for me to do this.

What is the quality that makes a good production designer?

I think you have to be a good game player. You have to be able to convince people to do what you want, like a good general, and you have to be able to look into the future, like a chess player. You have to be able to see the big picture. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, real-life or fantasy (the 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth is nothing without its vividly-imagined set-pieces featuring a little girl who interacts with a faun and other magical creatures in a mysterious maze). Once you know the script, you know the central idea, and that governs the design.

Is there a wish-list you have of filmmakers you want to work with?


Oh so many. Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Pawel Pawlikowski… I think my best is yet to come. I’m only 46 years old. I want to be doing this till I’m 80. I just want to make films.