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Doha Tribeca Film Festival

DOHA mosque near festival cinema

[Dear Readers, this is the first installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Peter Rorvik. Further dispatches will soon include the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam and the Dubai International Film Festival. Peter is the Director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as Director of the Durban International Film Festival.]

Dispatch 1: Doha Tribeca Film Festival (Oct 25-29, 2011)

by Peter Rorvik

Riding into Doha there is a huge signboard saying ACHIEVE. Nothing else, no apparent context, just the word ACHIEVE, emblazoned in huge letters. This is an appropriate signifier for Doha, it could be the country’s slogan, so evident is the aspiration for success in Qatar. Magnificent tall buildings seem to compete for architectural design awards, and cranes are everywhere hoisting up new edifices--come back here in five years time and this place will look like Manhattan. It must surely be the fastest-developing city in the world, and with the Soccer World Cup taking place here in 2020 there will be no slowing down. How did this small desert country get awarded the prestigious World Cup anyway, and why is there a film festival here? You can make up your own mind on the first, but as to the second question, the daughter of the Emir of Qatar studied film in the US where she interned with the Tribeca film festival. Endorsement at the highest level for a film industry thrust in Qatar resulted in the founding of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 and the Doha Film Institute in 2010, and there were certainly royal trappings to drool over. A veritable film village has been constructed in the Valley of Cultures, although it is not an actual valley, everything is flat in Doha. Many of the principal events, including the opening film, take place within a massive outdoor structure, hung with screens that from a distance give the appearance of stone walls. Dutch infrastructure was specially imported to house some of the activities, including four compact portable cinemas, well-kitted out and comfortable, and so air-conditioned that you have to layer up when stepping in from the 35degrees desert heat. It’s all highly professional and fit for sheiks, kings and queens.

The opening film heralds Qatar’s foray into cinema production. Lavishly supported by the Qatari government, Black Gold pulled in big names such as Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto. Set against the discovery of oil some 80 years ago, and directed by French helmer Jean-Jacques Annaud, this desert epic is a colourful splurge of tribal rivalries, battle scenes, family honour, honourable and dishonourable men, and enslaved women. A tad long, the film benefited from the injection of humour supplied in the mid and latter sections by British actor Riz Ahmed. Filmed in Qatar and Tunisia at the very time when revolutions were sweeping the region, the struggles for freedom within the film take on new mirrored importance, but whether the film holds together enough to project that point is questionable. Credibility aside, a Jordanian filmmaker complained bitterly that the $55m budget could have supported the production of 50 Arabian films, not just one. Banderas wasn’t on hand for the opening but he and the legendary Omar Sharif were a star act during the award ceremony. Generally the awards teetered on shambolic, with one of the jury members crying out in exasperation, "Please tell us, what award are we supposed to be presenting now?" All went off in good spirit, however. Everyone seems to understand this is a film festival in development. Development was also the motivation in using 1100 volunteers, and out of these will, in time, hopefully come a new organizational cadre of the future and answer charges that too much attention, and money, goes on international glitz and glamour, and not enough on upskilling locals.