Only weeks into the job, the Doha Film Institute's new CEO Abdulaziz Al-Khater sat down to chat with TOH! during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival to discuss the long-term goals of the nascent festival, now in its fourth year, and DFI itself, the umbrella organization which presides over all of Qatar's film initiatives. Al-Khater was polite but a certain guardedness is to be expected from a man running a high-profile outfit in this part of the world, even one that in its short life has become one of the most proactive cultural organizations in the Middle East. (Qatar, the wealthy emirate of which Doha is the capital, may be one of the most progressive countries in the region but it's also under the firm thumb of its emir and hasn't experienced its own Arab Spring upheaval.)
"This year, we've tried to bring the festival closer to the community," Al-Khater told TOH!. "We're trying to make Doha Tribeca a Qatari festival with international relevance." Does that mean there was concern that previous festival director Amanda Palmer's three-year tenure was too glitzy and star-obsessed? "It's not about being 'too glitzy'," Al-Khater countered. "You create a brand, you give it a sense of relevance, but you can't forget the primary mission, which is to exist as a platform for filmmakers from the Middle East." But it's equally important, stressed Al-Khater, to expose local audiences to international films, with Ken Loach's "The Angel's Share," Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt," and "Silver Linings Playbook" all unspooling to Qatari audiences this year.
During the festival, the DFI announced funding support for 27 new projects by Arab filmmakers. Among the 20 features awarded grants were "Terraces" by Algerian director Merzak Allouache, whose film "The Repentant" won Best Narrative Feature at this year's festival, as well as documentaries "Gaddafi's Girls." a portrait of the women's brigade that Libya's deposed dictator used as bodyguards, and "Democracy Year Zero." about the Tunisian uprising that overthrew the authoritarian regime of Z.A. Ben Ali.
"We look for stories that will speak to the Middle East," said Al-Khater, observing that recent political upheaval has unleashed a desire to tell and consume stories throughout the region. "The Arab Spring has encouraged filmmakers to speak out."
Asked if the DFI had any lessons to learn from last year's DFI-funded "Black Gold," the Jean-Jacques Annaud-directed Arabian oil epic which singularly failed to have an impact on the international stage, Al-Khater sidestepped the question but did highlight his organization's youth (and, hence, relative inexperience): "In four years, we've made immense strides and we will continue to improve on this model. The next films we finance are going to be more about exposure, about knowledge transfer and about doing the right kind of film."
He'll already be anticipating a more enthusiastic reception for Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." The DFI-funded project opened this year's festival and Al-Khater praised it for being "neither Eastern nor Western but very human and with a message that is universal. I'm not saying that's the only kind of film we will be involved in, but the projects that we are involved in have to speak to Middle Eastern audiences in the first instance."
This year's Doha Tribeca Film Festival was marked by a few highlights, including a one-hour career talk with Robert De Niro, one of the founders of the original Tribeca Film Festival a decade ago. The actor spoke to Geoff Gilmore in front of a packed house at Al Rayyan Theatre in the heart of Souq Waqif, the hub of this year's festival, about his craft, his various collaborations with Martin Scorsese (including their upcoming gangster epic "The Irishman," which will reunite De Niro with Joe Pesci and Al Pacino) and his advice for young aspirants. "I always say, 'You've got to love what you do. Don't expect to be famous – do it because you love doing it and have fun doing it.'"
Al-Khater confirmed that Doha's own Tribeca association will carry on for the foreseeable future. "They've been incredibly supportive and they believe in our mission," he observed. "Without them, it would be much more difficult to do what we want to do."
"DFI is a young organisation that has achieved so much so quickly," he continued. "To take it to the next level, we now have to think about not just what we want the festival to look like but how we operate internally going forward. It's not a question of changing what we do at DFI as opposed to being able to do more, better."