Ajyal, in Arabic, means “generations”. At the aptly-named Ajyal Film Festival in Doha, several age groups come together for a six-day cinematic feast — more than 500 young people, ages ranging from 5 to 21, experience curated cinema, conversations and workshops conducted by filmmakers and mentors from around the world.
I witnessed this learning-and-making-connections-and-having-fun-through-cinema at the festival, now in its sixth edition. The venue is the sprawling, picturesque Katara village, the hub of all things cultural in the city. The young people get there after school, post-2 pm, and watch the films chosen for their age group. The screenings are followed by meetings with the filmmakers, discussing the issues raised by the films, and awarding their favourites.
Through the process, the young people, all drawn from different nationalities, make connections with one another and learn how to agree to disagree and come to a consensus. A chat with four young jurors one evening leads to bright smiles and chatter. Annabel, 11, tells me this is her third Ajyal and she cannot wait for the next edition. Zoham, 15, wants to become a TV anchor and make movies. Muqlis, 17, has ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. All of them have had a great time at the movies in the past few days.
The toughest part of a festival like this, especially if it needs to choose films that are “family friendly” keeping in mind the sensitivities of the region (in India, we have a very similar mandate), is to programme enough movies that push the envelope while provoking and challenging young minds. “That is the most important aspect of our programming,” says Fatma Hassan Alremaihi, CEO of the Doha Film Institute, and the festival director.
A handful of films do just that — provoke, challenge and move. Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, which won a jury prize at Cannes this year, wins hearts here. It isn’t the easiest film, especially for the young, because it features very young children in extremely difficult circumstances. Zain doesn’t know how old he is — he could be 12, as far as his penniless parents remember. He lives in an overflowing home in a Beirut slum with no resources, with several siblings. When a pretty sister is “disposed off” to a much older man, Zain rebels. He hits the streets and runs into a pair of homeless refugees, a mother and a baby, who are struggling with that eternal conundrum — if you have no papers, you don’t exist, and if you don’t exist, you are illegal, and you can get no papers.
At places, the film feels contrived and manipulative, but on the whole, Capernaum is powerful and stirring. As is the film that opened the festival, Freedom Fields, a documentary featuring young women in post-revolution Libya, and their struggle to create a football team. To kick a ball should be the easiest thing in the world, yes? No, not in some parts of Libya, where women are to be neither seen nor heard.
What’s striking are the strong feminist voices on display, especially Labaki’s, who speaks of how she looks at “cinema as a tool to tell stories from different realities”, and Naziha Arebi’s, the director of Freedom Fields.
The slate of films includes Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, and Marco Prosperpio’s The Man Who Stole Bansky. The first is a road movie undertaken by an actress and a director in search of a distraught girl, and the film demands a sophisticated understanding of roads and people in cars and journeys and quests to be fully enjoyable. The Bansky film is about street art and subversion and how people in a land become part of that art, both in terms of accepting and rejecting it. Neither is an intuitive choice for a “young people’s film festival”, but the fact that they are there is cause for celebration. Too often, and much to all-round detriment, do we underestimate the young.
The documentary, The Price of Free, focusses on the work Nobel peace prize winner Kailash Satyarthi has done in freeing children from slavery and trafficking. The screening leads to a conversation around the dignity and safety of childhood, and the nature of the discourse is surprising mature coming from such young viewers, especially because they come from such sheltered and privileged backgrounds. Even more surprisingly is how the interaction with Satyarthi pans out: he is a huge hit, instantly connecting with his young audience, and the session spills out of scheduled time. “The film shows how through compassion and conviction, ordinary people can change the world,” he says. The children cheer.
Lots of cheers greet Draco Malfoy, aka Tom Felton too, proving there are enough Harry Potter fans at the festival. A popular comic-con style section is dedicated to geeks, and is called, what else “Geekdom”, where gamers and lovers of comic characters are to be seen punching consoles and drooling over the exhibits.
The best part of Ajyal — everywhere you look, there are young people watching, chatting, drinking in movies. It’s a heartwarming sight. You want to end strife in the world? Expose your children to great cinema. They will become change-makers.