As Doha prepares to host the New York-based film festival, all signs point to a contemporary programme tailored to the region.
Tribeca comes to town
It's odd to think of Tribeca becoming an international franchise. More than most, the film festival was a response to conditions at specific place and time. It was founded, in the words of its mission statement, "to spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan" in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks. In the dark days of 2002, the actor Robert de Niro and the husband-and-wife investment duo of Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff joined forces to create an event that would "enable the international film community and the general public to experience the power of film by redefining the film-festival experience". The event they came up with, hosted in the TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal Street) area of the city, was hip, international, worthy and arty, none of which qualifications exactly guarantee mainstream success.
Yet it was hugely popular. In its most extravagant phase, in the years 2006 and 2007, each festival included more than 250 films and over 1,000 screenings. The operation has been scaled back since then, though that seemed to owe as much to the protests of exhausted journalists as to any drop in demand. The festival buys its own movie theatres and funds its own films. In the seven years since it was established it has elbowed its way to the top of the pile of US film expositions, duking it out with Sundance and jockeying with Toronto for pre-eminence across North America.
Doha, which holds its first Tribeca this week, is the festival's first outpost. It's a fascinating precedent: here's hoping that one or two other film events born out of adversity are now contemplating overseas editions. A Singaporean transplant of the Sarajevo Film Festival, for instance, would be a marvel such as to reaffirm the whole idea of globalisation. As it happens, though, Doha Tribeca came about via a happy accident. The festival's royal patron, Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, now president of Qatar's museum authority, did a discreet stint as an intern at the New York festival. As Jane Rosenthal, Tribeca's co-founder, told my colleague Katie Boucher last year: "I wasn't fully aware who she was and where she had come from and that she was a shekiha. But she really spent time in the office getting to know the staff and what we do and the film festival on the most insider perspective, so she really knew how our heart and soul worked."
After her internship was complete, Sheika Mayassa proposed Doha as a second base of operations. The Tribeca team was impressed by -Qatar's educational investment, its belief that "it's not their hydrocarbons that are their best natural resource, but their people." In Rosenthal's words: "They're really a role model for change in the Arab world - we just said we want to be a part of this." And so the wheels were set in motion. The artistic directorship for the festival passed to one of Doha's most prominent film personalities. Amanda Palmer hosts The Fabulous Picture Show, an international cinema magazine programme on Al Jazeera English. In some ways this was a surprising appointment - a more common path into festival directorship appears to be through academia, at any rate if the experience of the Middle East International Film Festival's Peter Scarlet or Tribeca's Geoff Gilmore is anything to go by. All the same, Palmer makes intuitive sense in the role. As a TV producer she is attuned to artistry in visual media. As a broadcaster on Al Jazeera, she's rooted in the social and cultural climate of Qatar. And as a film journalist she is accustomed to putting together an attractive menu of movies on a weekly basis. Plus she goes to a lot of film festivals herself. Palmer, as she explained to me earlier this year, was working with Sheikha Mayassa even before -Tribeca signed its deal with Doha. "She knew that I do the film-festival circuit from a different experience, that I watch films and that I experience them from a journalistic kind of view- So she asked me to give her some advice on some of the possible partnerships," she said. There was one obvious choice. "We wanted someone who knew how to put on a film festival," Palmer told me. "We wanted a partnership with a group of people who had put on events that were very much community-minded, but also engaging. "Tribeca has these fantastic -educational all-year-round community-outreach programmes. They also do education not just for aspirant teenagers who want to make film; they do it for emerging and established filmmakers- And we also wanted a group who knew how to put on a show. Nobody wants to shy away from the word 'entertainment'." The first fruits of Doha Tribeca's outreach initiatives emerged earlier in August, with a screening of one-minute films created through Doha Tribeca workshops. A second screening of workshop shorts -followed in September, as did a "home-screening kit", so that film fans could enter into the spirit of the festival from within the bosom of their families during Ramadan. "What we know in Doha and -certainly in the region is that they are family-oriented," Palmer said. "Sixty-seven per cent of the population in Doha here 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." The programme for the inaugural festival promises to make good on those commitments - to entertain and engage younger audiences. It's a smaller line-up than that of the Middle East International Film Festival, which ran in Abu Dhabi this month, but also a poppier one. More of the programme is given over to big European or American films, with the opening gala going to Mira Nair's Amelia, a Hilary Swank prestige picture recounting the life of the legendary aviator Amelia Earhart. A Serious Man, the latest from that blue-chip brand among indie auteurs, the Coen brothers, also receives its regional premiere at the festival. Among the other solid western productions to get an airing over the coming week is the Oscar-tipped An Education, a coming-of-age story based on a memoir by Lynne Barber. There's Bright Star, Jane -Campion's Keats biopic, and Capitalism: A Love Story, the latest rabble-rousing docu-essay from Michael Moore. One of the things Palmer said she most admired about Tribeca in New York was her sense that it's "a surprise every night- One minute they might have Spider-Man and the next night they've got some indie thriller". There may not be anything on this bill to equal the mass appeal of Spider-Man, there are still a lot of big, dignified and well-reviewed films. The other priority for Doha Tribeca was that it should be, intrinsically, a Gulf festival. "We had to be very clear that we are a film festival in Doha, in the Middle East," Palmer told me. "It's very important to people to know that this is a festival that understands its community and is programming for its community in the region." Thus the festival bill cuts a swathe through the best in recent Arab cinema. MEIFF's -audience award winner, No One Knows About Persian Cats, is playing. So is another wonderful -Iranian film to carry over from MEIFF, About Ellie, a muted melodrama with a plot wound as tightly as farce. Elia Suleiman will be presenting his deadpan masterpiece The Time That Remains, for which he was presented with Variety's Middle East Filmmaker of the Year award in Abu Dhabi the week before last. And then there are the films I haven't seen yet, though their -descriptions make them sound fascinating. Assila is a cartoon feature about the adventures of a horse. Directed by the Iraqi animator Thamer al Zaid, it receives its world premiere in Doha. Meanwhile Team Qatar, the feature most closely tied to the festival's hosting city, is a documentary about Qatar's international debating team. The film's director Liz Mermin followed the squad and their Oxford coach through gruelling training sessions and tournament dates in London and Washington. It ran as part of the BBC's Storyville documentary strand in May and The Guardian's TV critic Sam Wollaston could barely contain his delight: "absolutely lovely", he said; "The kids in the Qatar team - Vartan, Talal, Tina, Fatima and Ayesha - are a joy, both incredibly clever and very naive." The film also won flattering reports when it ran at the New York Tribeca this year. Expect it to score an even bigger hit on home territory. Both Palmer and Rosenthal have insisted that Doha Tribeca won't just be the New York festival transplanted to a new venue. The programme, whose deeper cuts include the 1969 Egyptian classic, Al-Momia, and Najwa Najjar's recent Palestinian love story Pomegranates and Myrrh, would seem to confirm this. We are presented, then, with an interesting hybrid. Here's hoping it flourishes on Qatari soil. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival runs from October 29 to November 1. For more details see www.dohatribecafilm.com.