Back in September Amanda Palmer, the recently appointed head of the new Doha Tribeca Film Festival, declared that "this has to be a Middle Eastern film festival". Now the programme for the Tribeca brand's first Middle Eastern edition has been unveiled and it appears that she has been as good as her word. Of the 33 features on the slate, a dozen have ties to the region and the remainder cut a broad swathe through the rest of the world's recent critical hits.
The festival boasts the world premiere of Assila, an animated drama from the Iraqi director Thamer al Zaidi, in which a beautiful horse has to race for the love of her adoptive family. It claims the Qatar premiere for Red Cliff, the latest action extravaganza from the Hong Kong gun-opera auteur John Woo. The film, starring Tony Leung, is billed as the most expensive ever produced in Asia. The festival will also give Gulf audiences an early chance to catch the latest slice of cerebral goofiness from the Coen brothers. A Serious Man stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a Jewish academic living in Minneapolis whose faith is tested by his obnoxious family; the film has been billed both as one of the Coens' sourest and funniest recent efforts, which in the context of their Washington thriller parody Burn After Reading means we're in for some very tart comedy indeed.
The stand-out selections as far as the festival's regional ties are concerned are Team Qatar, About Elly and The Time that Remains. Abu Dhabians will be able to see the last two at MEIFF a couple of weeks before Doha Tribeca gets underway. Still, from a combination of personal experience and early reviews, a second chance to catch them ought to be no bad thing. Team Qatar, which gets its Middle East premiere at the festival, could scarcely open anywhere else. The documentary follows the first Qatari national debate team as they train for the world debate championships in Washington DC. Its British director, Liz Merman, was responsible for a couple of other well-received films: Office Tigers, which took a wry look at the world of offshore Indian support staff, and The Beauty Academy of Kabul, which followed a group of American women as they attempted to set up a hair and beauty school in aftermath of Afghanistan's American invasion. The premise of her new one sounds like it ought to exercise a similar appeal to Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz's charming 2002 documentary about contestants in a US spelling bee. Plus, live debate is about the most exciting blood sports there is. One way or another it ought to be special.
About Elly is the latest from the celebrated Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi. It stars Golshifteh Farahani (last seen in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies) in a story of escalating deceptions as a group of moneyed Tehranis take a holiday by the Caspian. The film took the gong for the best narrative feature at this year's New York Tribeca and is Iran's entry for the best foreign film category at the 2010 Oscars. Critics have praised its labyrinthine plotting and slowly ratcheting tension. Trailers suggest a distinctive, brooding directorial style too.
The Time that Remains is a wonderful work by the Palestinian film-maker Elias Suleiman. He appears in the later half of the movie himself: a silent, Buster Keaton-like presence who relates the history of Israeli occupation in a series of stingingly deadpan vignettes. I happened to catch the film when it screened in Cannes this year and was, like more or less everybody else, seduced by its oddly feline brand of gallows humour. A favourite sequence shows a Palestinian man pacing back and forth in the street shouting into his mobile phone. His every move is tracked by the gun placement on an armoured car. The scene runs on, typical of Suleiman's patient style, passing through menace into absurdity and then hilarity.
Another great film to carry over from Cannes, and another to use slowness and repetition to startling polemical effect, is the Australian director Warwick Thornton's Aboriginal love story Samson and Delilah. Samson (Rowan McNamara) is a shiftless teenager living in a tiny Australian shanty town; Delilah (Marissa Gibson) lives with her grandmother, dutifully helping make ethnic paintings to sell to rich white people. The two fall, or perhaps stumble, in love, but addiction, poverty and neglect conspire to destroy them. Hypnotic and crushingly sad, it's a difficult film to watch and a harder one to forget. I recommend it highly.
And there are a couple of likely Best Picture Academy Award candidates on the slate, too. The opening-night film is Amelia, Mira Nair's biopic of the legendary 1930s aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. It could well turn out to be one of those lifeless prestige pictures that exist only to hoover up Oscars, but the presence of Hilary Swank in the title role suggests otherwise. The Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby star is generally at her best playing tortured tomboys. Even setting aside their remarkable physical resemblance, the swashbuckling Earhart ought to be a gift for her.
Meanwhile, An Education, a cold-eyed coming-of-age drama set in early-1960s Britain, won enthusiastic write-ups when it played at Sundance. Adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by the stiletto-sharp interviewer Lynn Barber, it tells the story of a schoolgirl whose desperation to appear sophisticated drives her into the arms of an older man with very murky business interests. There are some reportedly strong leads from Peter Sarsgaard and the comparative newcomer Carey Mulligan, but the supporting cast, which includes Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson and Rosamund Pike, sounds just as appealing. The book was, as Barber's admirers and detractors alike would have expected, pitilessly mordant. But the director Lone Scherfig, best known for her Dogme-ish black comedy Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, has a dark heart all of her own. The ingredients, at least, are promising.
Several other films on the bill merit particular discussion. I can vouch for the excellence of Bright Star, Jane Campion's oblique biopic of the poet John Keats, and for Bahman Ghobadi's joyful portrait of Tehran's illegal indie-rock scene, No One Knows About Persian Cats. My colleages have said promising things about Najwa Najjar's debut feature Pomegranates and Myrrh, and The September Issue, RJ Cutler's behind-the-scenes look at Vogue magazine.
Still, the film that sounds most appealing is one that has absolutely nothing at all to do with the Gulf. John Maringouin's Big River Man documents an attempt by the Slovenian "extreme swimmer" Martin Strel to swim the 3,000 mile course of the Amazon. Strel, a portly 55-year-old who subsists on a diet of horse burgers and gut-rot and occasionally wires his head to a large battery, makes an unlikely record-breaker. His journey immerses him in toxic waste, piranha schools and tribal conflicts. Is he an athlete? An eco-warrior? A maniac? The easiest way to find out is coming to Doha this month. Time Out described Maringouin's film as being like Borat remade by Werner Herzog, and there isn't much praise higher than that. I can't wait.