Now in its third year, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in Qatar has some catching up to do with its more established United Arab Emirate cousins, the nearby festivals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but enthusiasm and passion are evident among its organisers and programmers – and with the Qatari regime fully backing it with extremely deep pockets, Doha Tribeca is here to stay. If you were a Doha resident, there was no getting away from the fact that a film festival was going on, with posters and banners plastered all over the city and a massive fleet of branded courtesy cars ferrying filmmakers, industry folk, journalists and other attendees back and forth between first-class hotels, lavish social events and the $2-billion Katara complex the festival calls home.
Katara is only halfway finished, leaving the festival to mostly take place in temporary structures, including an open-air theatre filling in until the nearby amphitheatre is completed. But the cultural-hub ambitions for the complex, which include a mosque, a falconry and an opera house where various screen talks (Antonio Banderas, Luc Besson, Morgan Spurlock…) and industry panels took place, are evident: its official title is “The Valley Of Culture” and once the artificial sand dunes rising around its borders are complete, it will actually sit in one as well.
You can practically smell the aspirations for global prominence in the air, and see it all around you. Still a decade off from World Cup hosting duties, the changes afoot are spectacular to behold, even if it does give the city the air of a massive building site. Most journalists were put up in the luxurious W Hotel in downtown Doha, surrounded by a glittering forest of glass and titanium skyscrapers – many of them still empty, as are the streets apart from the foreign workers imported to create Doha’s metropolitan profile. Sure, everyone drives because of the desert heat but it still feels like a city waiting to come to life in its spanking new Vegas-y bits, away from the city’s old quarter.
Operating under the aegis of the Doha Film Institute (DFI), the festival opened with the DFI’s first international co-production, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black Gold. Set during the nascent oil boom and starring Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong, Tahar Rahim and Frieda Pinto as Arabian royalty, the $55 million production doesn’t lack for ambition but isn’t executed well enough to make a big impression on the international stage, which was clearly the intention. The DFI might be wiser pouring its production funds into sourcing new talent and developing projects with local filmmakers that have potential to reach beyond the Arab stage. Of course, much of that is already underway, with the DFI committed to an education and industry programme. One compelling initiative, called Harrer, Harrer (Liberate, Liberate) and spearheaded by Scandar Copti, co-director of the Oscar-nominated Israeli drama Ajami, involved novice filmmakers from cities across the Middle East making one-minute films that reflected on the Arab Spring. The films were displayed on small video screens in the Katara education center, with viewers able to scoot around from one to the next on cushions placed atop tiny glass beads. An insightful and strangely soothing experience…
The Arab Spring also featured prominently in the 14 Arab films in competition – particularly among the documentaries, although the winning narrative feature, the French/Algerian co-production Normal, was set against the backdrop of the momentous shifts taking place in Tunisia and Egypt. And courtesy of the Tribeca link, Robert De Niro did make an appearance, albeit a brief and slightly grumpy one on the red carpet at the closing night gala for Luc Besson’s The Lady. He proved less elusive, however, than the DFI’s Australian executive director Amanda Palmer, who made many glamorous appearances presenting the festival’s galas but couldn’t be pinned down for interviews and thus was unable to answer questions about Doha Tribeca’s future goals – in particular what significance the Tribeca link would have going forward (there was some speculation that changes are afoot but illumination on the situation was unforthcoming).
Still, it didn’t detract from the festival’s robust and confident atmosphere. One person who undoubtedly left Doha a very happy man was Morgan Spurlock, whose Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope won the audience award for documentaries (Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki repeated the feat in the narrative section, echoing her Toronto audience triumph with Where Do We Go Now?). Spurlock bounded up on stage at the closing-night festivities to collect his reward – a bouquet of flowers (“I feel like a queen,” he joked) and a check in the amount of 100,000. Later, at the closing night party, he was laughingly telling anyone who would listen that when he opened the envelope and saw that figure, he just assumed it was in Qatari currency (which would have worked out to around $20,000) – before looking closer and spotting a dollar sign...
With money like that to spend, who’s going to argue against Doha Tribeca’s chances of turning itself into one of the Arab world’s foremost cultural events. Roll on year four.