Doha Tribeca Film Festival

Inaugural event helped by a partnership with Robert De Niro

Film festivals in the Middle East do not generally lack ambition, nor are they wanting in terms of financial support -- which made it something of a surprise when Doha, capital of the Gulf state Qatar, decided to partner with an existing international film festival, Tribeca, in launching its own event.

"We were determined to be a success from Year 1," Doha Tribeca Film Festival executive director Amanda Palmer says.

Both the festival (which kicks off Oct. 29) and the strategic partnership with Tribeca were the brainchild of Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Khalifa Al-Thani, chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority Board of Trustees and a leading figure in shaping the country's cultural mandate. Under her aegis, the Qatar Museums Authority opened the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, which will function as the DTFFs central hub.

Jostling for attention in the region's rapidly filling festival calendar, the DTFF is modeled along the lines of the New York-based Tribeca and hopes to emulate its success.


In its inaugural edition, DTFF will celebrate the best of Arabic and international cinema and screen Mira Nair's biopic "Amelia" on opening night. As part of its mandate to be inclusive of the community, the movie will be screened to 3,000 residents while the gala takes place indoors.

"Bringing films out is the easy part," says Palmer, who is also head of entertainment at Al Jazeera-English, headquartered in Doha. "Involving the community and making it a fun family experience for them is where Tribeca's incredible expertise came in."

Tribeca has in the past had institutional partnerships, but nothing like the DTFF arrangement, which is often mistaken as an off-shoot of the New York fest.

"Doha Tribeca has its own identity and it will continue to evolve by taking its own path," says Tribeca executive Geoffrey Gilmore, the former head of the Sundance Film Festival. "This partnership is unique, as it's a cultural one. The way I see the Middle East and Gulf, in particular, is similar to the scenario out in China and Mexico 20 years ago: There is a huge opportunity and I'm confident the DTFF is a start in the right direction."

While the assistance of A-listers like Tribeca's Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro helped draw high-profile films and filmmakers, the festival's program was put together in Doha.

"We haven't programmed for the youth, but a diverse audience interested in different genres of film," says Palmer, noting that - like other countries in the Arab world -- the majority of Qatar's population is younger than 30 (67%, in fact).

Palmer says she aimed to engage Qatar's community and began the process of promoting filmmaking talent as soon as the fest was announced.

To this end, DTFF has been conducting workshops since mid-July for young Qataris with a proclivity for filmmaking. Two workshops were designed for aspiring directors, who were taught the basic skills of storytelling, filming and editing. The workshops generated a series of one-minute films that were screened to the families and friends of the filmmakers during the summer.

Despite a rich tradition of storytelling in the Arab world, the development of the region's cinema has only gathered impetus in recent years, largely facilitated by the emergence of film festivals within a few years of each other.

DTFF's community outreach programmer, award-winning filmmaker Scandar Copti, who has been involved in workshops across the Middle East, says the Gulf stories are unlike those originating from Middle Eastern conflict zones such as Israel, the Palestinian Territories or the Levant.

"The films or narratives I hear here are more self-critical," he notes. "(Filmmakers) are ready to speak out about important social issues that are part of everyday life, which they feel strongly about."

Responding to the concern that the region may be flooded with too many festivals too soon -- particularly in the absence of a mature cinema culture -- Palmer says. "There are in fact too few festivals. DTFF and other festivals perform an important function of bringing together the community with the filmmaker," she adds.

Although Doha does not have a film financing fund, the long-term plan is to use the platform of DTFF and its status as a media hub to nurture a cinema industry that works closely with the other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates, which comprises Abu Dhabi, Dubai and five other emirates.

"Qatar has the power to invest in good stories," Palmer says. "And the strategy is to create a centrality for funding and facilitating great film ideas. But our headline is not about creating an industry; our headline is that we're taking baby steps to build a strong foundation. We're here to stay and we want to keep the promises we make."