DOHA: “Each film I make feels like my last,” Tilda Swinton said, eyes focused on the middle distance between herself and her audience.
“I just have so many other things I need to do!”
Swinton was center stage at the Qatari capital’s Museum of Islamic Art Friday. Hers was the first of six moderated master classes by celebrated international cinema figures to be staged during Qumra, the Doha Film Institute’s film incubator platform, now in its fourth edition.
“I’d never intended to be on screen,” Swinton insisted.
“I don’t think of myself as an actor. I never did. I came from the world of art and writing. I wanted to be a writer, not a performer.”
An Oscar-winning actor who jokes about her struggle to memorize her lines, Swinton has enjoyed a remarkable career marked by multiple collaborations with some of the more imaginative and challenging filmmakers of the past three decades.
This list commences with Derek Jarman – with whom she developed seven feature films in the last nine years of his life, including the Turner Prize-nominated “Caravaggio,” 1986 – and includes Sally Potter, Bela Tarr and Jim Jarmusch. She’s also worked with such interesting commercial directors as the Coen brothers, Danny Boyle, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, Luca Guadagnino and Joon-ho Bong.
She’s acted in a Judd Apatow comedy (“Trainwreck,” 2015), co-written and co-starred in “The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger,” 2016, a documentary on the late art critic and writer, and has narrated an audiovisual adaptation of a science fiction novel directed by experimental composer Johann Johannsson (“Last and First Men, 2017).
During her master class, she excitedly alluded to a project that she’s planning with Palme d’Or-winning filmmaker and visual artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who presented his own master class here Sunday morning.
Swinton’s career is rooted in the politically engaged art house cinema that arose in the U.K. in response to the Thatcher regime.
“We were so affronted by what Thatcher and her minions said about what it meant to be British,” she told her Doha audience, “we wanted to say, ‘We’re here too.’ We wanted our bewilderment to be heard.”
She was joined onstage Friday by Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto Film Festival, in a personable conversation about her career of artistic collaboration.
His questions were punctuated by clips from an array of her more-or-less commercial releases – beginning and ending with Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” 2013, as well as Potter’s “Orlando,” 1992, Andrew Adamson’s “The Chronicles of Narnia,” 2005, Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” 2007, Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin, 2011 and Joon’s “Okja,” 2017.
Swinton’s reflections were peppered with anecdotes – thoughtful, frequently amusing and unexpectedly emotional.
She reminisced about going to battle about how the White Witch (her character in “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”) should look. The film’s production designers wanted the villain to have black hair, a red mouth and red nails.
“‘Why?’ I asked.
“‘Because she’s evil!’ they replied.
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘you have me with my white hair, no lipstick or nail polish.’ They said, ‘But she has to be beautiful!” she recalled, looking a bit crestfallen.
While discussing the 8 1/2 Foundation – the nonprofit she created with filmmaker-critic Mark Cousins, dedicated to exposing children to world cinema – Swinton remarked that the foundation’s name was inspired less by the renowned 1963 Fellini film than it was an incident with her son.
“One day he asked me, ‘What were people’s dreams like before cinema?’” she recalls, her eyes briefly welling with tears. “He was 8 1/2 years old at the time.”
Qumra’s fourth edition is showcasing 34 short and feature film projects by first- and second-time filmmakers from 25 countries in the Arab world and beyond.
The human resources of this incubator include in excess of 150 acclaimed filmmakers, industry professionals and experts.
The stars of the show, the masters, rotate from one edition to the next and this year the six-person roster is particularly varied in expertise and temperament.
Joining Swinton is Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (whose credits include “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Aviator”), who, like Swinton, came of age in Jarman’s circle. The balance of the masters are directors, whose films run the gamut of contemporary cinema.
The dreamlike work of Weerasethakul (who won the Cannes Palme for his 2010 feature “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and has amassed a bushel of awards for his contemporary art) has, to this point, been inspired by the intersection of traditional and popular culture and recent history in his native Thailand.
Known for intelligent commercial titles like “Moneyball” and “Foxcatcher,” Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller moves in a somewhat different sphere of cinema than Weerasethakul.
The same can be said of Gianfranco Rosi, who presented his master class Saturday. Rosi’s nearly solo feature-length documentaries have collected prizes usually reserved for feature films.
His “Sacro GRA,” 2013, which works as a profile of the ring road surrounding Rome, won Venice’s Golden Lion. “Fire at Sea,” 2016, his study of the island of Lampedusa, a favored landing ground for traffickers smuggling migrants to Europe, was the only documentary to win the Berlinale’s Golden Bear then went on to be nominated for a documentary feature Oscar.
The films of Andrey Zvyagintsev have specialized in acerbic tales of post-Soviet Russia. They’ve won, or been nominated for, multiple prizes at international festivals, including Cannes and Venice, and his most recent title, “Loveless,” was in contention for this year’s best foreign language film Oscar.
In addition to hands-on contact with the masters, Qumra Projects films – whether works in development, production and postproduction – are exposed to a wide array of other mentoring opportunities, as well as coaching sessions with industry professionals – producers, festival programmers, distributors and the like.
Late in the master class, Bailey asked Swinton why she continued to collaborate with so many of the same directors.
“Because they’re my friends,” she replied. “As I said earlier, I became an artist because I see myself in relation to others.”
That’s not a bad metaphor for cinema.
Qumra runs through March 14. For more see www.dohafilminstitute.com/qumra.