THE REEL ESTATE: The view from Doha

Joseph Fahim
10 Min Read

Like most journalists who flocked last week to Doha, I was ready to write off the first Doha Tribeca Film Festival for a number of reasons: (a) the fest appeared to be as another commercial enterprise exported from the US; (b) the concentration on American and British films (18 in total) at the expense of Arabic films (6) seemed to defy the purpose of an Arabic film fest; and (c) The glitz and extravagance surrounding everything the fest seemed to function as a distraction from its short duration.

By the end of the four-day period of the event, I must admit that I was quite content. I saw great films, met with gifted and passionate filmmakers and critics and got caught in the giddy buzz of observing a nation transformed by the movies. I could be totally off regarding the last point, but you can’t deny that the prospect of showing uncensored, art-house films in a country that has been housing nothing but mainstream Hollywood films and Egyptian comedies in its infinitesimal number of screens is nothing short of a revelation. And I was there to witness it.

Doha Tribeca Film Festival is the first Arab film festival to be born out of a partnership between an Arab country and an American film fest. The agreement between the Qatar Museums Authority and the New York-based Tribeca festival – whose co-founder is Hollywood star Robert De Niro – was inked last year through Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, daughter of the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani.

Amanda Palmer – executive director of the festival and head of the entertainment section of Al Jazeera International – has been laying the groundwork over the past few years for an alternative film culture with her TV program “The Fabulous Picture Show. Whether she possesses the qualifications, and skill, to organize an international film festival is a different question only time can answer.


The fest boasted an impressive line-up of films, including The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man, Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story, Asghar Farhadi’s Silver Bear winner “About Elly Bahman Ghobadi’s “No One Knows about the Persian Cats, Lone Scherfig’s “An Education, Jane Campion’s “A Bright Star and Elia Suleiman’s “The Time That Remains.

Arabic film highlights included Najwa Najjar’s “Pomegranates and Myrrh, Raja Amari’s “Buried Secrets and Yousry Nasrallah’s “Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story.

Tickets for most films were sold out. A couple of ladies I met travelling there from Egypt failed to find tickets for a number of films such as “The Time That Remains.

Doha Tribeca’s organizers asserted the festival is catered primarily for the local filmgoers; a justification of sorts for its lack of world premieres (except for Al Zedi’s animated feature “Assila ).

The impression I received about the actual identity of the festival was somewhat confusing. On the one hand, Doha Tribeca is essentially a local fest presenting a great selection of films that have been screened over the past 10 months in various film festivals around the world. On the other one, the fest is an international event, attended by more than 300 journalists from every corner of the earth, in addition to a large host of filmmakers, industry players, and a host of representatives from various organizations affiliated with development and education.

Doha Tribeca seems to fall between the two categories. Essentially, the fest could be regarded as testing ground for the creation of a diverse film culture (and hence the inclusion of few Arabic and Middle Eastern productions compared to American and British ones) while attracting important film figures like Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Ben Kingsly (who was seeking finance from Qatari investors for a project of his) to give it an international cachet.

If that is indeed the true objective behind the Doha Tribeca, I can attest that it has been successfully met. The fest has managed to attract the attention of the world’s most esteemed publications, including the New York Times, the Independent, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek to name a few. Although, truth must be told, the bulk of the coverage was prompted by the novelty factor of the fest and the lavishness of the organization.

Bling Bling & Hiccups

Speaking of organization, everything about the fest screamed big. Stars and press, escorted everywhere by what looked like an infinite stream of BMWs, were put in five-star hotels where each guest found the film schedules pre-programmed on and iPod Touch. Guests were treated to desert safaris, top restaurants and boat trips. Arab-American stand-up comedians Maysoon Zayid and Dean Obeidallah entertained the fest’s guest to a comedy night.

There were several glitches, especially in the opening ceremony where some filmmakers and press members (mostly Arabs, according to reports) were forced to wait for a long period before entering the Museum of Islamic Art’s grand open-air theater that was packed full with beach chairs.

Screening the newly restored version of Shadi Abdel Salam’s classic “Al-mummia (The Night of Counting the Years) in Souq Waqif was erroneous; the clashing noises and intrusive lights in the open-air, market-like venue nearly spoilt the experience. The choice of Ruba Nada’s “Cairo Time as the closing ceremony film was thoughtless and pointless since it had already been screened twice before to the public. Complaints that the fest is fundamentally managed by foreigners echoed loudly behind the scenes.

What compensated for the organizational blunders was the sense of intimacy most attendance experienced. Filmmakers, critics and audience members alike were sitting side by side, discussing film in cinemas, hotel lobbies and restaurants. “In most Arab film festivals, stars and press are deliberately separated from each other, Lebanese film journalist Vicky Habib from Dar Al Hayat told me, “It’s rare for a film festival to put the stars and journalists in the same place. The lack of preciosity was refreshing.

On the other hand, the hype surrounding the one-minute Qatari films and the film fund set by The Qatari media group, Alnoor Holdings, was completely overblown.

Qatar will need 20-25 years to establish a film industry. And judging by the poor quality one-minute films directed by first-time Qatari filmmakers that were screened in special presentations at the festival, it might even take longer. Like their country of origin, the short films seem isolated from the outside world, born out of a featureless culture blinded by luxury. Young Qatari filmmakers will need years to get exposed to world cinema, to explore the world around them.

The $200 million film fund is targeted chiefly to the production of Hollywood films. Independent Arab filmmakers, who have been constantly shunned by the Gulf investors, aren’t expected to benefit from the fund. The problem with Gulf film investors runs deeper than allocating the cash in the right direction. The fact of the matter is, the Gulf is still years behind establishing a viable commercial film industry.

“Without ‘commercial’ films, an independent film industry will not emerge, Lebanese director Chadi Zeneddine told me. And in order to create a real enduring “commercial film industry, risks must be taken. Judging by the slate of films currently in production, the risk factor doesn’t seem to be part of their equation. A film fund for Arabic independent film is still a pipe dream, unless fests like Doha or Abu Dhabi step to the challenge.

I’ve heard numerous contrasting remarks about Doha Tribeca Film Festival, ranging from “a complete failure to “a surprising success. I personally believe that the fest has succeeded in meeting the principal goal it has set for itself.

The swanky celebrations and overwhelming luxuriousness aside, two sights left a profound impact on me: the tears of an old gentleman falling uncontrollably at the “Time That Remains screening, and watching “A Serious Man in the company of three of the most passionate film professionals I had the priv
ilege of their acquaintance. For me, that’s why the fest really mattered and for that, I’m much obliged.

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