festival review - Turning the lens on ourselves

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When the curtain rises on the second Doha Tribeca Film Festival this month, the event’s organisers will be seeking to cement its status as a festival with a truly Middle Eastern flavour.

The film industry is a serious business, but this year’s Doha Tribeca international film festival takes a look at the lighter side of life while challenging comedy stereotypes.

“There is an extremely strong theme of comedy in this year’s festival,” Festival Director and Executive Director of the Doha Film Institute Amanda Palmer tells Oryx.

Making its Middle Eastern premiere at Doha this year is Just Like Us: The Movie, a documentary directed by Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed and a host of critically acclaimed international stand-up comedians, as they make audiences laugh across the Middle East.

?Including stand-up comedy performances filmed in Dubai, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the film challenges Western perceptions of humour and story-telling in the Arab world.?“Stand-up comedy is a fairly new thing for the Middle East; (the film) sees Ahmed Ahmed travel through the Middle East with some international comedians, and essentially proves the hypothesis that Arabs have a sense of humour,” Palmer says. “The comedians expect that they will shock the audiences but they are more shocked by the audiences who laughed their heads off. “It’s a really beautiful film…humour translates.” As part of its commitment to emerging Arab filmmakers, the Doha Film Institute – founded in 2010 by Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani as an umbrella organisation aiming to bring Qatar’s myriad film initiatives under one banner – is supporting a stand-up comedy tour of the Middle East on the back of the film’s regional premiere in Doha.?

“He (Ahmed Ahmed) would not get a release in the Middle East if not for a festival like ours,” Palmer admits. “What we are going to do is see the comedians come out, and we are supporting not only bringing the film to this festival but also supporting their film being released in the Middle East. “I hope that Doha becomes a place where distributors choose to open their film. Part of what we would like to see, next year in particular, is more Middle Eastern releases come out of Doha.”

?Promoting original films that document the lives and aspirations of people from the Arab world has been a key aim of the DTFF since its launch in 2009. DTFF was Doha’s first international film festival to celebrate the best of Arabic and international cinema.

?While the festival programme was still under wraps at the time of going to press, Palmer promises another provocative year. But the festival will remain true to its family and community development focus.

“We know where we have got a huge fan base,” she says. “We have been fortunate with being able to connect with the under-29-year-olds, as well as grow our relevance amongst families and children and really capture their imagination.”?As a result this year’s festival will feature an expanded Family Day, which was a great success in 2009.?

“We were always very ambitious in wanting to ensure that this belonged to Doha,” says Palmer. “This was not just an event that showcased film, it truly was a community film festival experience.”

?The Doha festival has slipped comfortably into a crowded period on the film calendar, with neighbouring Abu Dhabi and Dubai hosting glitzy paparazzi-prone affairs around the same time.?“We are about bringing the best filmmakers from around the world and the best from the region to do great things together. There are no overlaps. Bringing film to people is the most important criterion for us,” Palmer says.

?“For me there is no fun in pretending there is a competition. If you talk to filmmakers across this region they don’t buy into this. They want to go to all three festivals, they want to be before the different audiences.”

?For this year, DTFF will present more than 40 films in three distinctive sections: an Arab Film Competition; an Arab Short Film Competition; and a World Panorama. Palmer reveals that the organisers received “hundreds” of entries for the competitions.?“In this competition you will see some strong first-time filmmakers as well as the returning filmmakers,” she says. “What I always love is the surprise (of) filmmakers that come out of nowhere.” According to Palmer, the festival is attractive to regional filmmakers because it gives them an entr?e into the industry as well as a platform and marketing opportunities, thus opening doors that might usually be closed to them.

?“We gave people visibility. Promotion and marketing is expensive. This is why Hollywood has a star system,” she says. And unlike some festivals, the Doha brand seeks to be a year-round staple, offering education and community development strands including animation classes, master classes, film appreciation, and other projects.

?The end of this year’s festival will see the opening of Qatar’s first independent cinema and screening room at Katara, Doha’s new landmark cultural precinct. “With that kind of beautiful screening venue we hope that will bring more releases here,” Palmer says. “If we can provide the impetus for that, the evidence is that they will be popular.”

“Also at the heart of this,” Palmer says, “is the commitment of the Doha Film Institute to creating a vibrant and sustainable film industry in Qatar that creates jobs in the industry so talent doesn’t just fly in and fly out. The first step is financing ten feature films, the first of which is to start filming in Doha in 2011.

?“The nature of this business is not about overstating things. This is a tough business. What is really important to us is to help people who might want to invest in films, find a model, and find a resource to make wise, sustainable investment.”?Palmer says the DTFF is a work in progress, continually evolving to reflect the changing nature of its host country, Qatar, and the Arab region.

?“I would hope that we learn on our second, third, fourth, and twentieth year,” Palmer says. “It has to change…to learn how society shifts…to know where to position yourself.

?“The Middle East needs to celebrate film more, it needs these international platforms. For a first-time film festival to bring an international film festival of that scale and calibre to Doha was an extraordinary success.”

Doha, Qatar
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