Interview: Qatari filmmaker

Two Qatari brothers have made history by having the first Qatari-produced film screened at not only one but three international festivals.

Hafiz Abdulla based his film on a Los Angeles taxi driver
Hafiz Abdulla based his film on a Los Angeles taxi driver

Since graduating from university in 2004, director Hafiz Abdulla and his brother Hamad have had their film shown at the Huesca Film Festival in Spain and the Montreal World Film Festival in September.

Soon they will be heading for the United States, where Cab Driver will be seen at the Los Angeles Short Film Festival.

The 19-minute Cab Driver is the story of Kamal, a Moroccan computer engineer who emigrates to the US in an attempt to begin a successful career.

Kamal finds work as a taxi driver in Los Angeles and a series of setbacks eventually shatters his hopes of attaining the American dream. caught up with Hafiz Ali at the Montreal festival. What inspired you to make this film?

My brother and I completed both our undergraduate and graduate studies in America.

Living as Arab students in the US was a difficult experience. We had to pursue our dreams in a hostile atmosphere. We faced a lot of unjustifiable hostility and felt persecuted, particularly after the incidents of September 11.

Did this sense of persecution manifest itself in any legal problems for either of you?

I personally had an immigration suit filed against me. I was ordered not to leave the country for two years.

The government decided that they needed to investigate the reason for my not registering for university. So for those two years I was forbidden from seeing my wife and son.

It was very depressing knowing that my family missed me and I was incapable of seeing them. I felt oppressed.

How does Kamal’s story in your film relate to this oppression you are describing?

Kamal is a symbol for the disillusioned Arab who chooses to leave his country to succeed in America.

Hamad Abdulla, Hafiz Abdulla’s brother, studied film production

Hamad Abdulla, Hafiz Abdulla’s
brother, studied film production

He wished to emigrate to the States with his family to lead a life of capitalistic luxury. He wanted to achieve the American dream.

After September 11 he came to realise that his dream was turning into a nightmare. People started to treat him differently. Even his immigration papers began to take longer to process.

Did you base Kamal on a real character?

Yes. The Kamal in our film is largely a character based on an Algerian taxi driver in Los Angeles of the same name. Most of the details in the film are consistent with the real Kamal’s life.

I even took some direct quotes from my conversations with him. For example, I remember asking the real Kamal: “Why don’t you go back home if you are finding it so hard here?”

He responded: “People back home would laugh at me if I came back home a failure.”

I used this line verbatim in the Cab Driver.

What kind of response or feedback do you expect from viewers regarding the message of the film?

Initially I was concerned that people might misunderstand the political message behind the film. This made me keen and careful to approach the topic from a humanitarian point of view.

This story is about Kamal’s personal struggle between being homesick and desiring to succeed in an alien atmosphere.

The political message is implicit in his struggle.

Does the character Kamal face any racist situations in the film?

There are a few instances of racism in the film.

At some point Kamal is listening to Arabic music in the taxi and a passenger expresses his distaste for it. In another incident, a passenger accuses Kamal of deliberately taking him through a longer route to get more money and reminds him: “You are not an American!”

Not to say that I think these incidents reflect the entirety of American society’s sentiment towards Arabs. While many Americans have simply made the link between Arabs and problems, there are definitely others that sympathise with our plight.

How did you and your brother collaborate to make this film?

At first we were just looking for an idea. This film was our final university project, so we wanted it to at least be unique.

We thought, why not do something about an Arab living in the States? My brother studied film production and I studied directing. So it seemed natural for us to take on the roles we had been preparing for academically.

We also hired an ethnically mixed crew to work with us. The head cameraman was a Japanese immigrant and our film editor was a white Republican.

Your film has already been screened at a Spanish film festival and you’re on your way to the Los Angeles Film Festival. How did you first come to be selected for these festivals?

The film was first screened with the rest of Campbell University’s final projects for December of 2004. Afterwards, we listed as part of the Qatari Film Team.

We got positive reviews from a film panel, and this gave us enough courage to apply for a few film festivals.

We were very attracted to the prospect of representing Qatar internationally. We also knew that if we were to enter such festivals, this would increase the chances of the Qatari government working with us on future projects.

I am anxious to gauge the reaction from the audience at our next film festival in Hollywood, because this is the same place in which the Cab Driver was filmed.
Do you have any new projects lined up?

Yes, we do have a new project in mind. And we are looking for foreign producers that may be interested in collaborating with us.

The story is based on an Arabic novel called Death is Poetry.

It is the story of an old Qatari poet. We have made a preliminary agreement with an Egyptian screen writer, Abdelrahman Mohsen, to write the script for us.

Source: Al Jazeera

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