It seems regional film festivals have itchy feet. Less than a month after the Abu Dhabi Film Festival relocated back to the Emirates Palace, the 4th Doha Tribeca Film Festival - which drew to a close over the weekend - ditched its usual hub at the Katara Cultural Village to set up shop in the city's newly regenerated Souq Waqif area. And it was a move that was approved almost universally by attendees.
Abuzz night and day with locals and visitors spilling out from the cafes and restaurants onto its cobbled streets and with the scent of shisha and live musical performances an almost permanent fixture in the air, the new setting gave the festival a charmingly authentic, almost film set-style backdrop. Coupled with the family days held at Katara that saw the vast beachside complex come alive with enormous kites, children's workshops and outdoor screenings, this year's festival cemented Doha's status as the region's most community-embracing film event.
Filmmaking from Algeria was given a special showcase at the festival, 50 years after the country's independence. At the closing ceremony for the Arab Film Competition, the Algerian jazz musician Safy Boutella performed several of his own film soundtracks, plus a song he wrote for the 40th anniversary of Algerian independence, having been given a longer set by organisers due to audience appreciation.
Fittingly, it was an Algerian film that took the main prize. Highlighting the festival's creative achievements, Merzak Allouache explained on stage that The Repentant - about a former jihadist who tries to rejoin society - was made using the prize money he won at last year's festival for the film Normal. There will no doubt be calls for him to return with whatever he makes with his US$100,000 (Dh367,310) winnings this time around.
Talent from within
The Made in Qatar segment was bigger and better than any previous festival, underlining the huge year-round efforts made by the Doha Film Institute (DFI) to help develop local talent. While Bader, about a young boy fighting prejudice in an elementary school, took the main prize, arguably the most noise among international visitors and critics was being made about Lyrics Revolt - an energetic feature-length documentary exploring hip-hop and the Arab Spring. After the film's premiere in Katara, several of the artists featured - including the Egyptian trio The Arabian Knightz, Lebanon's Malikah and the Syrian rapper Omar Offendem - gave an outdoor performance. The musicians were later seen on the red carpet for the closing ceremony (where Lyrics Revolt was given a special mention), most naturally having ditched smart shoes for massive trainers.
The Doha connection
Doha regulars may have noticed that the past two festivals have now opened with big-budget, DFI-funded films - last year it was Black Gold and this time it was Mira Nair's adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which went down fairly well with most guests, largely due to its captivating cinematography. But will this become a regular occurrence? Will next year's Doha Tribeca Film Festival perhaps open with the Salma Hayek-produced, animated adaptation of The Prophet, also being financed with help from the DFI?
"We hope it will be ready for showing by then," says the DFI's new chief executive Abdulaziz Al-Khater. "These larger projects give us an opportunity to be involved with really high quality productions. We had four interns working with her on that project and that kind of exposure our filmmakers wouldn't be able to get otherwise."
The De Niro effect
With a revised focus on regional cinema, this year's festival wasn't quite as festooned with international, A-list names like previous times. But it didn't seem to bother too many and the presence of Robert De Niro - the founder of the original Tribeca festival and one of the stars of Silver Linings Playbook, which received its Mena premiere - satisfied most star-seeking camera phones.
De Niro's scruffy demeanour and generally unenthused attitude belied his "greatest actor of his generation" tag. But his In Conversation With session in the Al Rayyan Theatre provoked whoops and standing ovations from the audience, particularly when he confirmed that he would be teaming up with Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci for his forthcoming project The Irishman.
Under stars with ET
There's something quite special about watching a film outdoors, particularly when the temperature is just right and you've managed to snag one of the last few deckchairs available. Which is why Saturday night's showing of ET on the huge outdoor screen by the waterfront at Katara was one of the highlights of the weekend, introducing a whole new audience of kids to the delights of the spindly-fingered one and, for those who remember seeing it in the 1980s, reminding us exactly why it is still regarded as one of the greatest family flicks of all time.
Of course, screening films is one thing, but ensuring more keep coming is another. And with this in mind, the DFI used the festival to announce its latest round of funding, with grants being handed out to 27 new projects, including Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf by Susan Youssef, whose debut feature Habibi collected the lion's share of awards last year in Dubai.
"The Gulf now is obviously very important and those festivals are more and more important in making the new generation of Arab filmmakers," said the acclaimed Tunisian actress Hend Sabri, who was the president of the festival's narrative jury, adding that she appreciated the lack of censorship.
"You always have this fear that when people have give you money it comes with restrictions. But I was really impressed with the level of freedom that you find here in partnerships with the DFI and Arab filmmakers."