|The festival aspires to plant the seeds for a film industry in the region [GALLO/GETTY]|
Last month, Soheir Abdel Kader, Cairo International Film Festival’s vice-president, said in an interview: “In the Gulf, the only thing they possess is money.”
Earlier this month, Abbas Kiarostami, the award-winning Iranian filmmaker, said at the Abu Dhabi-based Middle-East International Film Festival (MEIFF): “You can have all the money and resources at your disposal, but that doesn’t create art. Art needs a certain mentality that many in the region right now are lacking.”
But in Qatar, Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani, the chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority Board of Trustees, and Amanda Palmer, Al Jazeera’s entertainment editor, have pulled all the tricks out of the bag to prove the pundits wrong during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF), the first international film festival organised in the Qatari capital.
Planting the seeds
Boasting a solid film lineup, Hollywood A-listers and plenty of panel discussions, the festival aspires to plant the seeds for a genuine film culture and, more ambitiously, a film industry.
The first Arab festival to partner with an American one, Doha Tribeca’s efforts to screen international films from different parts of the world, in a country whose handful of film screens have been solely restricted to Hollywood fares and Egyptian films, is nothing short of a major breakthrough.
A host of stars, filmmakers and producers have turned up for the festival, including Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Mira Nair, Jean Jacques Annaud, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Jeffrey Wright, Elia Suleiman and Egyptian stars Adel Imam and Youssra, among many others.
As in all Gulf festivals, lavishness seems to be the opus operandi of Doha. From the grand, if imperfect, opening ceremony held at the recently inaugurated Museum of Islamic Art and attended by more than 3,000 locals to the extensive facilities and supplementary activities, Doha has pulled all its resources to ensure the success of the festival. There have been some glitches that should be forgiven for an emerging festival.
The general mood in Doha has been buoyant and celebratory. The whole city is abuzz with contagious excitement, not only for the stars the fest has succeeded in drawing, but, most importantly, for the films themselves. The signs of the beginning of a cultural revolution are all here.
The film lineup, comprised of 32 films, contains some of the most acclaimed films of the year – Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains, Lone Scherfig’s An Education, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows about the Persian Cats and Yousry Nasrallah’s Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story.
In addition to the masterclasses given by Mira Nair and Elia Suleiman, the most promising feature of Doha’s first edition is the panel discussions that cover a variety of topics such as the financial challenges facing documentary filmmaking, cultural partnerships and the new faces of Arab cinema.
The Doha festival arrives at the most congested period of the Arabic film festivals calendar. Along with Doha, six film festivals in the region are opening within the next six weeks, including Cairo, Dubai and Damascus, which kicked off yesterday.
Doha’s organisers have been promoting it as a festival catered, first and foremost, to the local community; an outlet to open the public to different cinematic art-forms representing various cultures. On that that level alone, the festival is a resounding success.
Nearly all screenings have sold out. Films left field of mainstream Hollywood such About Elly and The Time That Remains have been hugely popular. This writer has met a number of film aficionados from across the Arab world who have travelled to the Qatari capital for the festival.
The ambiance of the festival is quite intimate. There is a sense of palpable wonderment driven by observing a nation embracing the magic of the movies, and smashing many impediments in the process.
Taken as an international festival though, the picture is not as perfect. A key problem the organisers of Doha must remedy on the long run is the lack of tangible identity or niche compared to other fests in the region and international ones alike. MEIFF is positioning itself as the place for nurturing budding Arab talents; Dubai has grown into the biggest film market in the Arab world and Cartage is the Mecca of Arabic films.
|The opening ceremony was held at Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art [GALLO/GETTY]|
Doha, on the other hand, is difficult to classify. Adopting the commercial American festivals model, it lacks the sense of curation that characterises European festivals.
The number of Arabic films – six in total – is rather low compared to the 18 American and British participating productions.
Apart from al-Zedi’s animated feature Assila, which has received its world premiere in the fest; the vast majority of the films have been screened in a number of previous festivals. The fest thus plays as a great catch-up for critics, filmmakers and film fans who have missed these films, but does not amount to much for international critics scouring after new films.
The money issue represents a large question mark.
Critics in Egypt – the home of the largest film industry in the Arab world – accused Doha’s organisers of “buying a fest” and taking on the identity of its American partner instead of “creating” its own.
Some have also claimed that Doha paid a hefty sum of cash for its film lineup.
“This is not a real drawback,” revered Egyptian critic Samir Farid said. “Any festival is allowed to pay whichever amount of cash to get the movies they want. Presenting people with different films of high quality can never be a disadvantage.”
The biggest misstep of the festival though has been the directing workshops organised by DTFF’s community outreach programmer this summer.
Supervised by young filmmaker Scandar Copti, the director of the award-winning film Ajami, 14 Qataris and expats have been selected to direct one-minute films. The outcome – screened on Friday – has been nothing short of disappointing.
Nearly all of the films felt insular, lacking vision, substance or personal imprints, essentially a collection of hollow snippets. The disheartening gaffe of the workshop is the misleading compliments the workshop students were showered with following the first public screening.
The employment of Martin Scorsese to present the projects was unfair both to Scorsese and the students themselves. Simply put, there cannot be an imaginable room for improvement when the greatest living American filmmaker tells you that your film is “very promising”.
Contributing to Arab cinema
Hollywood executives have travelled in droves to the Gulf over the past seven years seeking oil money for their drying resources. Their endeavor, for the most part, has not yielded any significant or groundbreaking results. All investments have fallen into mainstream family films, eschewing daring projects typified by morality Arab producers may find objectionable.
Arab filmmakers did not fare any better; several scripts by young directors are still stuck in development hell. Established directors such as Rachid Masharawi and Rachid Benhadj on the other hand resorted to European backing after several Gulf states chose to pass on their projects, which proved to be critical successes later on.
Both Dubai and MEIFF have taken considerable steps to back auteur driven-projects the region’s emerging, and inexperienced, producers have refused to undertake. The funds they have set up and generous monetary awards they have handed out have spearheaded a number of indie Arabic productions, a few of which have now been completed.
All eyes will now be on Doha to examine how far it will contribute to Arab cinema. The success of the festival will be measured in the long run not only by the wide range of quality films it presents, but by the talents it fosters and its willingness to embrace, and support, new ideas.
With the right approach, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival could become much more than a simple showcase of film or a vehicle for promoting the Qatar Peninsula, proving that the Gulf possess something more valuable than money.
Joseph Fahim is the Arts and Culture editor of Egypt’s only independent English newspaper Daily News Egypt. As a film lecturer, he has also given workshops on film criticism, literature, theatre, music and art.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.