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#BerlinalePeople: Rolla Tahir
The Process of Discovery

Rolla Tahir
Rolla Tahir | © Rolla Tahir

This profile is part of an ongoing series of mini profiles on the blog German Film @ Canada on the people behind the scenes who make the Berlinale one of the most important events in the international film calendar: the filmmakers, programmers, curators, industry promoters and fans, from rookies to veterans.  

By Jutta Brendemühl

What's exciting about the Arab films in the Berlinale this year is that most are from new filmmakers, another reason why I respect the festival so much – it promotes and amplifies new and diverse voices.

Rolla Tahir

This year, two female filmmakers/programmers from Toronto are visiting the Berlinale as part of the Diversity & Inclusion Initiative of the European Film Market in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut. One of them is Rolla Tahir, one of the co-founders and the artistic director of the Toronto Arab Film Festival (TAF), the first festival of its kind in Toronto to showcase pan-Arab films annually.
Rolla is also an independent filmmaker and director of photography. Her short film Sira premiered at the Rolla Tahir Rolla Tahir on Jamie Whitecrow's set | © Stan Williams Toronto International Film Festival and went on to screen at various festivals, including Open City Docs. She has assumed many roles as an arts administrator and film educator, most recently at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, Regent Park Film Festival and Innis Town Hall. Her passion for film stems from the need to bring unique stories to life, work with visionary creatives and to understand and be understood.

Why is Berlinale (Market) access important for your work?
You'd be hard pressed to find an emerging filmmaker that has no ties to Berlinale. I've been in and around the film festival circuit for over a decade now, in various capacities, but I've been confined to the local circuit for the most part. Canada, no doubt, has a robust and thriving film festival scene, however, when it comes to Arab cinema, Berlinale, is unmatched in programming and opportunities available through its market.

As the artistic director and co-founder of the Toronto Arab Film Festival, I speak to many filmmakers, emerging and established, and I'm always intrigued as to which opportunities they had access to, and the majority of them have participated either in Talents programme of the Berlinale or the Market or simply had their films screened in Berlin, which then propels their careers forward.  When programming for the festival, my first research stop is the Berlinale programme. This is how I was introduced to the award-winning Sudanese-German film, Talking About Trees, which opened our inaugural Festival last year.

Film for me is a window into places and people

Arab film looms large in the Berlinale selection across the sections this year. What are you looking for and what are you looking forward to?
My favourite part of any film festival is the process of discovery, I definitely do my due diligence in going through the programmes before attending any festival, but I always love to be surprised. What's exciting about the Arab films in the Berlinale this year is that most are from new filmmakers, another reason why I respect the festival so much -- it promotes and amplifies new and diverse voices. 

I am particularly excited to see Seven Years Around the Delta Nile by Sharief Zohairy. It's not often that I get to see experimental works from Arab filmmakers, and I adore essay and travelogue films. I also like focusing as much as I can on 'national' cinemas for lack of a better term, to explore the new waves of filmmaking hailing from those regions, the similarities, the breaking with traditions. I'm hoping to connect with these filmmakers and bring their films to Toronto audiences.
If you were physically in Berlin, you would …
This year's festival is particularly interesting to me as a festival director, I've attended many virtual festivals, but I cannot wait to see what Berlinale has in store. Needless to say, presenting an online festival is challenging for many reasons, chief among them is the potential lack of engagement that is so crucial to film festivals and by extension to the filmmakers premiering films there. However, on the other hand, there's a lot less pressure on logistics and more focus on the actual content. One pros I found as a result of this virtual shift is that many filmmakers can now 'participate' despite potential challenges with borders and visas. So I'm looking forward to all the conversations around the films, albeit virtual.
Having said this, nothing, for me personally, will replace the physical festival experience. I would have loved to see Berlin through the eyes of the festival so to speak. Film for me is a window into places and people, and I would have cherished an opportunity to walk the streets of the city with many friends I know who go to Berlinale regularly. This past year, I've connected with many filmmakers online all of whom would have been in Berlinale this year, it would have been a reunion of sorts! Alas, this virtual edition could ease me into the ins and outs of the festival, so that I'm better equipped next year if I am lucky enough to attend.
It will have been a good Berlinale market experience 2021 for you when …
It would be a successful market experience for me if I find 3 or 4 great films for this year's Toronto Arab Film Festival. I'd also love to gain more insight into the Talents programme and connect with budding filmmakers. Co-productions are now a cornerstone of Arab films, particularly, the independent, more experimental ones, and I'd like to be in a position to connect Arab filmmakers in Canada to international directors, writers, and particularly, producers.