x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Doha film festival brings hopes - and energy

Event highlights sense of community and motivates young filmmakers, even though some find local representation inadequate.

DOHA // Near the end of The Scents of Shadows, Hafiz Ali Ali's short film on the history of moviegoing in Qatar, Abdul Rahman al Mannai explains the evolution of this Gulf emirate's take on movies over the years. "It started out as black magic and hocus-pocus," says the veteran Qatari playwright and director, "and ended up as fine art".

Locals revealed a similar appreciation for cinema throughout this past weekend's Doha Tribeca Film Festival - attending screenings in droves, lending an unpaid hand, offering informed critiques and making accomplished films of their own. "The most exciting thing," said Geoff Gilmore, the chief creative officer for Tribeca Enterprises, "is how much the community has participated." The festival, which ended on Sunday, is the brainchild of the First Lady, Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and is the first franchise of the Robert De Niro-backed Tribeca Film Festival. This edition aims to do for Doha what the original did for that downtown Manhattan neighbourhood in the wake of the September 11 attacks - re-establishing a sense of community and reinvigorating local arts.

Thousands turned out for the opening night screening of Mira Nair's Amelia - and over 10,000 attended dozens of other films - on the grounds of the Museum of Islamic Art. Qatari staff and over 1,000 volunteers were ubiquitous at discussions and festival events. "This is a great way to show off our society and make this a great festival," said Salah al Naimi, 18, a volunteer. The engineering student at Qatar University was checking film screening tickets at City Centre Mall, where many screenings were held. "In other societies in the Gulf, people think it's a shame to volunteer, to work without getting paid. But Qataris aren't like that."

The festival may have made its deepest impression with young Qatari filmmakers. This past summer, festival organisers helped nine inexperienced filmmakers direct their own one-minute films, providing advice, equipment, actors and facilities. The results were shown at the festival and praised by Hollywood heavyweights including De Niro and the director Martin Scorsese. The Oscar-winning director also offered some simple advice: "Don't give up. There will be disappointments and setbacks, but don't let the passion be pushed out of you."

Sophia al Maria, 26, won the Most Promising Filmmaker award. She thanked the film festival and its sponsors for the support she and the other young filmmakers received. "We have this great opportunity," she said. "It would be a shame if we didn't go on and stay ambitious." Festival organisers plan to help these young filmmakers do just that, with an exchange programme and year-round screenwriting and directing labs that begin their operations in March. Ten filmmakers from Doha will visit New York to take a behind-the-scenes look at the next Tribeca Film Festival, while 10 filmmakers from New York will visit Qatar for the next DTFF.

Hany Abu-Assad, the Palestinian director of 2005's acclaimed Paradise Now, complimented the budding directors but warned: "The American influence is too big. I feel it's a pity that we are neglecting our own cinema." The curators of the festival did, however, incorporate films from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Palestine and other regional countries, highlighted by an outdoor screening of the 1968 Egyptian classic, Al Momia.

The event was not without its shortcomings. Scents of Shadows was the only film in the festival directed and produced by a Qatari. Paired with Ali's film was Peter Webber's Jasim, which was shot in Qatar with an all-Qatari cast. The short film recounts the 19th-century independence struggle led by the founder of modern Qatar, Sheikh Jasim bin Mohamed Al Thani. At a post-screening discussion, some members of the audience criticised the lack of dialogue and female characters.

"It was difficult to find Qataris who could deliver their lines," said Webber, who directed the Academy Award-nominated Girl with a Pearl Earring. "It was easier to find thousands who excel in horsemanship." And some programming did not take cultural sensitivities into account. Organisers set up the stage for the Al Momia screening in Souq Waqif, about 50 metres from a mosque. An aggressive western dance performance staged before the film startled some locals.

"We don't like this," said Mohamed Khalidi, 26, a mechanical engineer. His friend grimaced as a young woman in black tights was lifted overhead by her dance partner. "It's foreign, it's not ours, not for us." Yet Doha residents mostly embraced the festival. "It's wonderful - well-run, world class and politically aware, " said Shekhar Swain, sitting with his wife at the Al Momia screening. The two moved here from India more than five years ago. "We've never had anything like this in Doha before. I think it will have a tremendous impact."

Organisers hope the festival energises the local film community and puts Doha on par with Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Gulf capitals with their own flashy international film events. As if on cue, the Doha-based Al Hashemi Group launched a major media firm, AlNoor Holdings, on Friday. The firm's first major film will recount the life of the Prophet Mohammed with a budget of US$150 million (Dh551m). It will be shot in Qatar and produced by Barrie M Osborne, who has worked as a producer on Hollywood blockbusters including Face/Off, The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings series.

"There's no way Qatar could have done this 10, 15 years ago," said Hamida al Kuwari, 21, a college graduate working in the festival's press office. "We've progressed so much, come so far, and this is the culmination." @Email:dlepeska@thenational.ae