The art of influence
Amanda Palmer is that rare thing, an arts journalist with influence. To start with, she gets to create her own vehicles. As the head of entertainment for Al Jazeera English the Australian presenter came up with The Fabulous Picture Show, a film programme which she now hosts. Almost uniquely among movie shows it manages to bring the eclectic, international flavour of a well-curated film festival to the small screen, broadcasting from live events and offering interviews with Brad Pitt or Danny Boyle one week and special features on Jordan's first feature in 50 years the next. It is, as Palmer says, "an amazing platform for filmmakers... Particularly in the Arab world, it was very important to give them a platform that they don't really have anywhere else".
Now Palmer has just stepped into a new role, one that builds on The Fabulous Picture Show's restless curatorial spirit. It will, moreover, magnify her sway over the regional and international film scene. In July, Palmer was named the executive director of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, the Gulf offshoot of Robert De Niro's New York festival. Though Tribeca has only been running since 2002 (it was founded as a response to the attack on the World Trade Center) it has quickly become one of the highest-profile brands on the festival circuit. The inaugural Doha edition, scheduled to run from October 29 to November 1, will join the Middle East International Film Festival and Dubai International Film Festival to consolidate the region as a major player in the film business. And Palmer plans to use her position to reach out to those talents who have been left to fall through the cracks in the industry.
"There are some extraordinary new filmmakers in the region," she says. "We are talking people from the ages of 25 to 30 that are making films at auteur level, that are award-winning filmmakers now." The trouble is, as she says, getting their work out to audiences. "We've seen some some fantastic films that are going to be internationally applauded, but they can't get distribution. And that's a crime. That's a real travesty." Thus one of her first duties with Tribeca is to work out how to get these films the attention they deserve.
She is also keen to encourage talents who do not yet have a finished film to promote, offering them the benefit of Tribeca's contacts and experience. "What we are very aware of is that there's no point just writing a cheque for somebody and expecting them to come up with a fantastic film," she says. The Middle East's film industry is growing fast but still lacks many resources. "They want more acting schools. They want more mentoring. They want more script development because there's no point giving somebody a bit of money and expecting them to go off for a year and produce a fantastic script. You need someone to hold your hand. You need someone to speed dial when you're having a crisis point."
If it sounds like Palmer is speaking from personal experience here, she may be. As a TV journalist covering film, she is perhaps unusual in regarding herself as a fellow practitioner of the art she writes about. "I really do believe that filmmaking is just storytelling," she says. It was, she says, her own desire to tell stories that led her into journalism in the first place, starting out on Australia's Channel Seven and moving on to CNN and then Associated Press TV before the move to Al Jazeera. "I always find that with the term 'filmmaker', people tend to think of it as somebody who makes feature films," she says. "But certainly in my journalism capacity I had sort of made films, short-format films, in terms of documentaries, and coming up with concepts for shows in my own right. I love the process. I also know how difficult it is and I respect people who can make a feature film."
It's possible that, had things worked out differently for Palmer, she might have found herself doing just that. She was, she admits, a member of the Australian Theatre for Young People, the dramatic society that gave the world Nicole Kidman. "I've always absolutely loved film," she says, "and can embarrass myself and tell that I even trained. When I was at university I not only did a degree in journalism, I studied theatre and film... My interest in filmmakers was pretty much born from that - my own sort of training in theatre and filmmaking and as a journalist."
Five years ago, that interest led her to Doha and Al Jazeera. Two years later, she started The Fabulous Picture Show. Coincidentally it was at around this time that Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, now the chair of the Qatari Museums Authority, went to New York to do an internship at the recently established Tribeca Film Festival. "She's an incredibly humble and impressive woman," Palmer says, "and managed to not tell everybody in the building who she was. She just had a fantastic experience at Tribeca and was very much in the engine room." Sheikha Al Mayassa absorbed a lot of know-how about the running of the festival. However, when she decided to set up one of her own, she came to Palmer. "She knew that I do the film festival circuit from a different experience. I talk to filmmakers and I talk to directors, and I have an understanding of how they make films. So she asked me to give her some advice on some of the possible partnerships."
Tribeca was the obvious choice. "We wanted a partnership with a group of people who had put on events that were very much community-minded, but also engaging." The New York operation, they knew, fitted the bill, both for its community spirit and for their savvy programming. "Tribeca has these fantastic educational all-year-round community outreach programmes," Palmer says. "They also do education, not just for aspiring teenagers who want to make film; they do it for emerging and established filmmakers." They also know how to put on a show. "The fact is, Tribeca has a fantastic programme... It's sort of a surprise every night. One minute they might have Spider-Man and the next night they've got some indie thriller from a fantastic filmmaker... We wanted to have that kind of full spectrum of programming."
And despite the distribution problems that her neglected auteurs have suffered, Palmer is confident that there is an appetite for it. "We know that cinema is perhaps - and I can certainly say for Doha - the number one entertainment here," she says. "In Doha most people are going to the cinema once if not twice a week. But they're basically served up a particular type of film? mainly Hollywood films. We know that they would love to see other films, not just from the Arab world but even from Europe and even from Africa and Nollywood [the Nigerian film industry]. There are all these other possibilities."
To realise these, however, Palmer is ready to explore some lateral approaches. "We might have to also think about alternative ways of distribution and not look to the models of America and Europe. We might have to be a little bit clever and come up with things that are really going to work here." Indeed, the question of what will really work for the region is one that Palmer is keeping a close eye on. "This is not Tribeca in New York supplanted to Doha," she says. "I work with a core group of Qatari nationals. We are programming from within Doha. I live in Doha; the Qataris are from Doha, and we have a very international team." And she insists: "What is important here is the identity of being in the Middle East, and we have to be loud and proud about that."
At the same time, Qatar possesses specific demographic features that will have to be taken into account. "Sixty-seven percent of the population in Doha is under 30 years old, so I'm very aware that we need to create an event that's going to engage and excite them," she says. "Programming for that age group is a lot of fun... they know a lot more about films than they are probably given credit for. They are on the internet. They are very aware of what's going on outside their region and very interested in new stories and perspectives, as well as getting their own perspectives and their own voices out there."
Indeed, giving a fair reflection of the region's multiple perspectives may make a difference to life far beyond the Gulf, too. "We have to make sure there's a diversity of stories going out there," Palmer says. "We don't want the rest of the world to think of the Arab voice as a monolith." In the end, though, the task may be simpler than it looks. "I think it's just about supporting those filmmakers that are already there and helping the emerging ones," Palmer says. "Just get their films shown. For me, that's a simple thing. " It's a goal few journalists are so well placed to achieve.
Updated: September 8, 2009 04:00 AM