When it comes to explaining Qatar to people who don't live here, I am often at a loss. How to convey a country's essence, its chaotic blend of traditions, cultures, faiths and food to someone who has not experienced any of these sights, sounds and tastes firsthand? It is not an easy task.
Enter Shades of Doha. The series of documentary-style short films featuring familiar characters around Doha, including a street barber and a bread maker, was first created by journalist and British expat Omar Khalifa. Recently, he developed Shades into a mini-series for Qatar's National Day.
What can Shades tell us about Qatar, and our place here? I recently put that question and others to Omar Khalifa, the 28-year-old director/producer. Read on to learn more about the series and Khalifas next film project, as well as his advice on staying true to ones self and beating the #1 expat complaint in Doha – its infamous loneliness.
How did you get tied up with National Day?
I was called by a producer friend of mine who said that somebody he knew liked the short films I had been making and wanted to meet me. Open, keen and blind-happy to the opportunity, I said yes. After meeting the guy – the creative director for the National Day programme – in a rather stately-looking building, he asked me if I'd like to make some more of my Shades of Doha series for the month-long channel dedicated to the forthcoming National Day. I jumped at the chance, formally agreed, and left the meeting wondering exactly who, indeed, I'd been talking to. As it happens, it was Peter Webber, the Acadamy Award-nominated director for Girl with a Pearl Earring, which gave me even more of a kick.
What is your official role?
I am the director of Shades of Doha. But I was also the cameraman, and bit-part editor. I had a producer and editor on board, but otherwise it was quite an intimate little project, the way I'd always envisioned it.
What is Shades of Doha? How does the series relate to National Day and Qatar?
A vibrant documentary-style mini-series, Shades of Doha gets to know the people and places that make Qatar what it is today. From the legendary medicine man to the famed falafel-maker, and the Bedouin camel saddler to the illustrious oud player, Shades of Doha paints a colourful first-person portrait of the countrys characters. Shades was borne out of a desire to celebrate the unique cosmopolitanism and diversity that Qatar heralds and will reflect during its National Day on December 18th.
Which is your favorite?
My favourite is the medicine man. We turned up at closing time, he didn't seem to like us much, and he looked a little down. But we chatted with him off-camera for an hour about life's mysterious ways, and he warmed to us. Eventually he agreed to let us shoot, and I made sure we were recording within 20 seconds before he changed his mind!
Has working on QND changed the way you look at Qatar at all? Have you learned anything new about this place?
Getting my hands on the QND vision has given me an insight into what Qataris enjoy about their nationality; about their statehood and how they see themselves. Over the course of the shoot, I learnt a lot about Qatar's recent tribal history, and its race to modernity. The Shades were effectively based on well-celebrated Qatari people and institutions too, so I got to hone in on where the locals spend their time. I had a lot of chai with some fantastic characters.
What is your future vision for the project/series?
I think it's time to put the Shades project to bed! From the initial Shades I made before National Day, to the ones neatly wrapped in the last week, it's probably about time to goodnight them. I've got a house-sized list of other projects to finish! I've shot 16 Shades in total – some for myself as a way to learn filmmaking techniques and develop my own style, and some for the National Day project. Two – the fish seller and shisha man – will forever remain unfinished.
Sometimes a series-based film project can get saturated, not only in your approach, based on the amount of time you've simply spent with it, but because when more factors are added to the equation – people, different equipment etc – the art can lose its original resonance, and filmmaking starts to become less appetising. The Shades for QND, I would say, are vastly different to the Shades I made originally. The concept, direction and focus changed, which felt more like a loss than a gain at the time of delivery.
Ultimately, I wasn't making them for me anymore. But that was also the challenge. There is a buzz about making TV and filmmaking, for me, is as much about creating visual art as it is project management. If you can marry the two, your production will run smoothly and your product will be a winner. I felt immensely proud to be on the QND project, there are some fantastic people involved in its production and I hope to work with them in the future.
Any hints on your next project?
Making films in Doha has made me want to open an independent cinema here. Fans of world cinema, who want to watch a film en francais one Friday with a latte on a comfortable sofa, I want to give them that place. In terms of film projects, I have a music video to shoot, I've got a few short films I want to make and I want to start pushing the boundaries of DSLR cinematography. These things are incredibly powerful now. I'd recommend any aspiring filmmaker to get one.
Qatar can be a lonely, isolating place for expats. Any advice to people on getting out there and enjoying themselves?
As an expat myself, I've been through all the emotions, just like anyone else. The best thing to do is always have a holiday ahead of you when you come back from the last one, even if it's a little break to Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Bahrain. Frankly, this can apply to anyone anywhere – I'd say this to someone running aground in London too. Doha's investing in its tourism sector heavily, so in the next five years, there'll be a bag of things to do. For now, my favourite place is a simple, green, open place – Aspire Park behind Hyatt Plaza. There, you could be anywhere.
Get to know more about Shades of Doha by checking www.shadesofdoha.com/beta/
– Shabina S. Khatri
Shabina Khatri is an American journalist freelancing in Doha, Qatar. Shabina has previously written articles for Global Voices Online, Al Jazeera English, the Detroit Free Press and the Wall Street Journal. E-mail her at email@example.com