x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Independent spirit

The Doha Tribeca Film Festival navigated an interesting partnership with New York and began to establish a unique, Arab identity.

The idea that a film festival named after a lower Manhattan neighbourhood should launch an offshoot on the Arabian Peninsula is pretty mystifying to start with. Yet the cross-cultural surrealism of Doha Tribeca's debut didn't end with its premise. "Open your arms to change, but don't let go of your values," Hamida al Kulawi, one of the exuberant comperes of the first-night ceremony, urged the crowd spread out beside the Museum of Islamic Art. She was, she said, quoting the Dalai Lama, and though it seems fair to surmise that his experience of rapid change was more painful than Qatar's, the festival's initiation on Thursday made it clear that this American-Arab partnership is unleashing some powerful forces.

Five thousand, the official figure, sounds like rhetoric rather than a literal head count, but the event still drew a startlingly large crowd ("a good problem", as the festival's director, Amanda Palmer, called it). The grounds of Doha's MIA were covered in a sea of deck chairs, all turned to face an outdoor movie screen in whose shadow you could have hidden a ferry. Thousands of Qatar residents and a good portion of the world's press poured into the free, public event to witness Doha's arrival on the international festival circuit.

The film they came to see was Amelia, a biopic of the legendary 1930s pilot (or "aviatrix", in the style of her time) Amelia Earhart. The film stars Hilary Swank and is directed by India's Mira Nair, whose career was the subject of a small retrospective at the festival. Before the opening screening she told the crowd that she believed film, like aviation, was capable of "annihilating the distance between cultures". It's a fine emblem for what Doha Tribeca is trying to do.

Opening galas are usually rich in symbolism, and as a major Hollywood production from a former industry outsider, Amelia has the merit of suggesting on multiple levels what a young film industry like Qatar's might achieve. It presents a figure who defied the world's expectations and took flight. But it's also a cautionary tale, and as the danger of American influence became an insistent theme throughout the festival's many industry discussion panels, it came to seem like a fitting one. Earhart flew too far, and Nair seems, we hope temporarily, to have lost touch with the forces that invigorated her best films.

"If we do not tell our own stories," she exhorted the crowd, "no one else will." Amelia is conspicuously not Nair's own story, and suffers for it. It's a big-budget studio picture that the iconoclastic director worked on as a hired gun. Accordingly, it finds the director, so passionate and spiky in indies such as Kama Sutra and Monsoon Wedding, at her most workmanlike. Amelia looks sumptuous but is lumbered with a Hallmark Channel script which the cast - Swank, Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor - seem literally to wince their way through. Earhart, naturally, is painted as a kind of sanctified Icarus, but in this instance perhaps Nair herself flew too close to Hollywood for her own good.

At any rate, at a later discussion she indicated that she would return to her own small-scale production style for her next project, an adaptation of Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. "It won't be a studio film because I don't want to be censored before I start," she said jovially. What might this episode symbolise for Doha? In a week in which Qatar's Al Noor Holdings announced a $200 million (Dh735m) film fund, the festival buzzed with discussion about how Qatar might keep its feet on the ground.

"The real question is, will oil money go to Arab culture, or will it go to Hollywood?" the Tunisian producer and distributor Tarak Ben Ammar said during a panel on film financing held at the Four Seasons. "Can I count the number of buildings that are outside this hotel?" he said. "Do you know how many Arab films could be made for one building?" The industry-heavy audience murmured in approval. In an earlier session, the influential independent producer and agent Cassian Elwes told filmmakers from outside Hollywood to forget any hope of American distribution. "The bad news is that foreign-language films are not being shown in America very often," he said, noting that US studios had, "in a very cynical way", saturated the American market with fake indie product and were now turning their attention to overseas screens, making Hollywood films in a range of local flavours.

"Don't think about America for your films," he said. "Don't even bother. Think about how to make my film successful in my region." Still, if nothing else, Doha managed to showcase a lot of the talent that deserves success on Middle-Eastern turf. The Arab and Iranian section of the programme, a large percentage of which also played at last month's Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, brought together several of the most remarkable film personalities from the region. Mohamed Khan, Bahman Ghobadi, Golshifteh Farahani and Khaled Abol Naga were among the notables to last the festival. Elia Suleiman, freshly garlanded from his visit to Abu Dhabi, turned in a typically entertaining masterclass on his career to date.

There was also searching discussion on "the new Arab way", the hybrid cultural forms that are emerging from contact between East and West. Among the panelists were the irrepressible Chadi Zeneddine, the director hired to make Disney's first Arabic-language feature, and Swel Noury, a filmmaker who has just finished a Morocco-based version of Dostoevsky's A Weak Heart. This, he told me stoically a few days before his panel appearance, is proving a tough sell with distributors: neither a straight literary adaptation nor a cinematic postcard from north Africa, it falls between easily marketed categories. But if Doha Tribeca can help find a home and an audience for such surprising projects, it will enrich both Arab and western cinema alike.

In the meantime, the festival has been laying the groundwork for its own local film industry. Several months ago, Qatar residents were invited to a series of workshops to make one-minute short films. The results were distributed on DVDs during Ramadan and screened at the festival. Tribeca's co-founder, Robert De Niro, and his sometime collaborator Martin Scorsese were on the judging panel, with Scorsese, who came to Doha to promote a restored version of the Egyptian classic The Mummy, praising the poetry of several of the films. That was certainly the defining characteristic of the winning film. Sophia al Maria's The Racer was an abstract, artily scuffed-up account of the death of a stunt driver. It paired verité-style footage of scrap yards with a startling final image of a figure standing on the side of a truck as it speeds across a desert on two wheels. The most controlled and imaginative of the competition entries, it more than justified al Maria's award for most promising filmmaker.

At Sunday's closing ceremony, Palmer and Tribeca's creative director, Geoff Gilmore, announced that the programme to stimulate Qatar's budding filmmakers will continue. In January, a directing and screenwriting "lab" and a training exchange programme with New York will be launched, so the supply side of Qatar's film market should pick up soon. For now, the most prominent slots in the festival programme were occupied by western films. Nair's film opened it and the closer was Cairo Time, a tourist's-eye view of the Egyptian capital made by the Canadian director Ruba Nadda. Patricia Clarkson stars as a married magazine editor enjoying an illicit flirtation. The English actor Alexander Siddig, speaking in what I am told is quite impressionistic Arabic, plays the brooding paramour. Cairo looks seductive but the film as a whole feels Egyptian to roughly the degree that Shirley Valentine does Greek: the Arab elements, though sympathetically presented, seem to be there to stimulate western audiences.

Meanwhile, the other plum spot, irresistibly noted in the programme as a "surprise sneak peek", proved to be an Imax screening of Spike Jonze's picture-book adaptation Where the Wild Things Are, a fantastical film about a young boy whose fury sends him into a world of monsters. It's a wonderful, inventive and penetrating piece of work. It pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of remaining faithful to Maurice Sendak's story, vastly expanding it and occasionally topping it for beauty and disquieting insight. It's American through and through, and it would enhance any festival at which it played.

In the end, though, the crowd voted for its home side. The audience award for Best Arabic Picture went to the Palestinian film Pomegranates and Myrrh, seen at the Dubai International Film Festival last year. And the audience award for Best Film went to Team Qatar, a documentary about Qatar's first international school debating team. Even without a patriotic incentive, it would be hard to deny that this was among the most charming films to play the festival.

"The team and coach," the film's director Liz Mermin explained when she presented the film, "are just fantastic characters, a documentary filmmaker's dream come true... I love them." It shows in the finished work and it's easy to see why. A more spirited group of teenagers would be difficult to imagine. The screening was followed by a live contest from the next generation of Qatar's debaters. The motion under discussion was: "This house believes that film is the best medium for storytelling." It was fascinating to see how the young speakers recapitulated some of the earlier panel discussions about American and international cinema. The motion's opponents identified film with its coarsest, most hegemonic Hollywood manifestations - "a Lamborghini flipping 15 flips", as the team captain Mohammed memorably characterised it.

The motion's proposers retorted with a vision of film as the most inclusive of all media, a repository of words, sound and images, accessible to viewers around the world and increasingly within reach of citizen filmmakers. Perhaps there's something to both views. It's to Doha's credit that, as it continues to navigate its intriguing partnership with New York, it has encouraged this debate to go on, in various its permutations, in public. After all, where's the fun in seeing a film if you can't have a friendly argument about it afterwards?