|The film festival in Qatar is one of several in the Gulf region this year [Doha Tribeca Film Festival]
In a desert landscape teeming with the gilded novelties of imported Western culture, the gas-rich Gulf Arab nation of Qatar is staking its cultural reputation on a US film festival with a decidedly Middle Eastern spin.
Far from the glittering lights of Hollywood, California, international celebrities are flocking to Doha this weekend to take part in the country’s first foray into the film festival circuit.
The Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF), in partnership with its New York namesake event, is the brainchild of Qatar's Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the daughter of Qatar's emir and the head of the Qatar Museums Authority.
Perched on an artificial island surrounded by the turquoise blue waters of the Gulf, Doha's Museum of Islamic Art is the home of the festival, which runs from October 29 through November 1.
The museum is also where, last November, the Sheikha announced her intent to bring Tribeca to Qatar with the help of its New York founders, Robert DeNiro, Craig Hatkoff and Jane Rosenthal.
The Doha version, she announced, would be modelled on the hugely successful New York festival, which launched shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US as a way to spur economic and cultural revitalisation in lower Manhattan.
Nearly a year after that announcement, the museum has been transformed into the headquarters of a digitalised red-carpet, star-studded DTFF affair to fete and whet the appetites of film-lovers in Qatar.
The initiative is the latest in Qatar's efforts to compete with its Gulf Arab neighbours for international attention, in moves aimed at transforming once-sleepy desert towns into multi-cultural metropolitan cities – at a cost of billions of dollars.
Though such initiatives began as an effort to attract international businesses, they are now taking place in the Gulf's arts and culture scene.
Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, launched its first cinema festival, the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff), in 2004. Not to be left behind, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, launched its own event in 2006, calling it the Middle East International Film Festival (Meiff).
The festivals come on the heels of other new cultural additions to the region, including the new Gulf campuses of several prominent Western universities and the introduction of both new and well-established museums in Qatar and the UAE.
Dr Hamid Naficy, a professor of communications in the radio, television and film department at Northwestern University's Qatar campus, says the recent emergence of film festivals, museums and universities in the Gulf are all part of a wider push to develop a "post-petroleum culture".
"There's a desire to create – for those who have oil – a post-petroleum culture because they realize petrol is not permanent," Naficy says.
"For those who don't have petrol, it's a desire to create a culture that is less crass … and [based] on a completely consumerist value system. That has to be remunerated by the introduction of deeper cultural values, so that's another reason for film festivals."
Naficy, a filmmaker who has also published several books on cinema in Iran and the Middle East, says the push for film festivals in the region also indicates a sense of rivalry between the Gulf cities.
"It's a desire to become modern and to be in the forefront of culture and civilisation," Naficy says.
"The problem is population. Small populations don't generally produce major film industries. You will have individual filmmakers. But whether [the Gulf] can become a mecca for filmmaking is not clear."
Naficy says the concept of holding film festivals has also gained ground in the Gulf because such events are easily "transportable" from one country to another.
"It's very different from the process of training someone in the arts. It takes six or seven years to create new artists - it's a long-term investment. But I can transport a film festival to other shores easily."
But the organisers of the inaugural edition of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival say their aim is to do more than just transport the New York edition of the festival to Qatar. They say they hope to encourage local filmmaking talent and plant the roots for a culture of cinema native to the region.
|Doha's Museum of Islamic Art has served as the base for the city's festival [Doha Tribeca Film Festival]
"Our vision is to create a festival that genuinely engages the Qatari people and supports regional filmmakers," Sheikha Al Mayassa, a former intern at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, has said.
"This ... is going to impact the way this region experiences film."
To achieve that, DTFF's organisers say they made a conscious effort to ensure that nearly half of the 31 films they are screening are from the Middle East, or have roots in the region.
Amanda Palmer, the executive director of DTFF, and the head of entertainment for Al Jazeera English, says her team programmed the film slate with the local audience in mind.
"We are creating an exciting and varied film festival experience by bringing some of the best Arab and international films to Doha," she says.
DTFF says it is also launching a series of year-round panels with filmmakers, directors and industry executives to give local participants the chance to engage with professionals.
The organisers of Abu Dhabi's film festival, which wrapped up its third annual event on October 17, say they, too, made an effort to reach out to aspiring filmmakers and encourage local talent.
Peter Scarlet, Meiff's executive director, says the first step to achieving that goal was to dismiss the notion that a film festival featuring more than blockbuster Hollywood fare could not take hold in the Gulf.
"There was scepticism: 'Why is a film festival coming to a place where films aren't being made?'"
Peter Scarlet, Meiff's executive director
"When Dubai started its festival, there was scepticism: 'Why is a film festival coming to a place where films aren't being made?'"
"But all of these festivals are a very, very good sign for encouraging audiences and encouraging filmmakers. You learn how to make films by watching films," he says.
For this year's Meiff, the first with Scarlet at the helm, festival organisers focused on securing films from the region - much like the festivals in Doha and Dubai.
"People scoffed and said we'd never get strong films from the region. But I’m happy to say we proved them wrong," Scarlet says.
"I took the Meiff [title] literally by having very strong international entries, because what people have access to here are films from Hollywood and Bollywood. But there's a big world out there."
With similar stated goals for each of the three film festivals, it could be hard to distinguish one from the other.
But Abdulhamid Juma, the chairman of the Dubai International Film Festival, which starts on December 9, says he sees no problem with a plethora of festivals in the region.
"Festivals bring energy to the city they are hosted under; they are city-related, not country-related," he says.
"So more festivals are better in the end for filmmakers."
Because of that, Juma has welcomed Doha to the ever-growing list of cinema-hungry Gulf cities, crediting its entry into the film festival world to Dubai's initiative for paving the way.
In the end, every festival will benefit, he says.
"Competition is healthy. We [all] want to help the industry and Arab filmmakers, most importantly. If we don't compete at that level then we're not doing our job, we're doing it for our egos."