Now in its fourth year, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival is both an eight-day international movie event and a celebration of the year-round work of the region’s film institute, which is engaged in an ambitious mission to build a sustainable industry through nurturing local talent.
Fortunate enough to attend this year and, having already seen many of the festivals glossier, high-profile US and other world cinema entries, I set about exploring the vast selection of features, documentaries and shorts from the Arab world. I also wanted to get a feel for the work of the Doha Film Institute and check the pulse of Middle Eastern cinema at what is – socially and politically – an absolutely critical time for the region.
It’s always a bit of a mission getting to grips with any festival, but the smooth organisational operation of the institute, the helpful nature of the organisers, my proximity to the venues (I was staying in Souk Waquif; the recently renovated central market area of Doha) and a well- stocked Blu-ray and DVD screening room (other fests take note) made things a lot easier. Festival press were given a nicer and sturdier than usual leather bag too (black and gold, with a definite 70s Gola vibe).
Here it is, next to some fool:
I was in town with another online journalist and writer – James Marsh, the Hong Kong editor for Twitch film – and we had lunch soon after our arrival with the institute’s new media producer/digital strategist Shamir Allibhai and Variety Arabia journalist and film critic Joseph Fahim. It was a nice way to get the lowdown on what was worth checking out as well as getting some of the cultural context for the festival. Shamir’s role is integral for a burgeoning fest, a crucial one given the rapidly changing world of film consumption and distribution. He gave us the skinny on some of the institute’s on-going projects and the filmmakers to watch in the ‘Made in Qatar’ strand. Joseph, an Egyptian writer with much festival experience, gave us lively and uncompromising views on the festival as well as pinpointing what he saw as the two key themes – immigration and fundamentalism. Turns out he was absolutely right, though I would add gender politics into the mix, understandable given the high (and hugely significant) quotient of films helmed by women.
The competition had its largest selection of films this year, with seven documentaries, seven narrative features and 13 shorts from 10 Arab countries, including first time films from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Among the in-competition narrative films I saw, three in particular stood out; Die Welt, Goodbye Morocco and The Repentant.
Alex Pitsrta’s Die Welt (a Dutch-Tunisia-Qatari production) is a semi-autobiographical culture clash drama with timely themes of immigration, people trafficking and cultural identity. If that makes it sound heavy, it isn’t – for the most part it’s funny and engaging and shot with real brio and confidence; a clearly personal portrait of a young, disaffected Tunisian – Abdallah (Hamid Naouara) who dreams of escaping to Europe. When he meets a couple of holidaying Dutch women, a brief liaison with one of them leads him to undertake the only feasible route offered to get out of the country. Loosely based on Pitstra’s own life – his Dutch mother married his Tunisian father (who plays Abdallas’s dad in the film, a lovely performance from a non-professional) only for the relationship to dissipate when he was still a child – this is an absorbing picture, with a confident, energetic directorial style and a script that probes at some of the dichotomies inherent in the Arabic view of western culture but never soft peddles them. Although Die Welt ends on a despairing note, this is a debut that leaves the viewer optimistic for the bright future of its talented director. Naouara is a star in the making too.
Writer-director Nadir Moknèche’s Goodbye Morocco is perhaps the most obvious candidate for wider distribution in the competition. A sophisticated blend of contemporary film noir, human drama and socio-political thriller this, like Die Welt, has immigration at its heart. But the treatment is rather different, stylistically and narratively. Lensed in a cool, crisp style with subtle nods to Cluzout and Almodovar, Moknèche’s film touches upon class and ethnicity boasting an intricate and multi- layered story that unfolds with precision and style.
Set in Tangiers, it stars Lubna Azabal (Incendies) as Dounia, a driven and intense woman who, along with her lover, is overseeing the construction of villa in Casablanca. Discovering an ancient fresco in the ruins she decides not to tell the owner and instead makes contacts to cash in and smuggle it out of the country. The plan is to escape her current life (her estranged husband has custody of their child and she plans to take away with her) but things go badly awry when one of the African workers working on the site disappears. Dounia’s driver steps in to help out but he’s harbouring some dark secrets of his own.
A complex and rich thriller that skilfully avoids cliché for the most part, Goodbye Morocco is an absorbing slow-burner. Some histrionics in an overly schematic final third threaten to scupper the tension but overall this is classy stuff.
Directed by veteran Arabic filmmaker Merzak Allouache, The Repentant is an Algerian/French co-production that has already played at Cannes and London and should get picked up for international distribution if it hasn’t already. Set in the late 90s when the Algerian government offered an amnesty to jihadist rebels after nearly a decade of civil unrest and many casualties, it follows Rachid (Nabil Asli) as he returns from the mountains to his hometown. Adamant that he has killed no-one he is nevertheless pursued by enraged locals who are convinced he is responsible for family deaths in various terrorist atrocities. Attempting to lead a normal life, Rashid takes a job in café which briefly works out but he soon finds that his past is ultimately inescapable in a time of such violence and mistrust.
If The Repentant has a problem it may be that for the first hour so it is perhaps a little too oblique. What begins as an involving puzzle briefly slips into narrative confusion. Overall though this is a beautifully controlled, simmering piece of work with a devastating ending that offers no easy answers but poses many tough questions.
The region’s future talent was pinpointed in the Made in Qatar strand. Annoyingly I didn’t see Lyrics Revolt, a documentary about hip-hop artists in the Middle East and their part in the Arab Spring, but I heard only good things about it and its soundtrack. I did see Mohammed Alibrahim and Ahmed Al Baker’s Lockdown: Red Moon Escape, an ambitious Arab take on the zombie movie. It’s perhaps unfortunate that this genre is so desperately played out but when I tell you that the film is only just over an hour long you can probably guess the problems. The opening sequence suggests a Juan of the Dead style comedy as buddies Safi and Rashid uncover some gut-munchers while driving in the desert. But when the action shifts to a secret military base the film finds itself caught between two genres, with not enough time or ideas to build or sustain tension.
I don’t want to be too hard on Lockdown (the audience, many of whom were Made In Qatar students it must be said, went crazy for it) which does have an exuberance about it (the opening part anyway) but I do feel aping genres like this is not the way forward culturally, artistically or financially. For Arabic filmmakers to break through with genre works it surely makes more sense for directors and writers to connect with their own incredibly rich and ancient traditions of folklore and storytelling? Just ask the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and the Spanish.
One of the hot tickets for the festival turned out to be something of disappointment. Michael Singh’s documentary Valentino’s Ghost promised to be a searing expose of Muslim portrayals in U.S popular culture and news media. While it is standard for such a documentary to offer a largely one-sided view (no surprise for guessing who Singh’s heavy-set, baseball cap wearing hero is) this is a sketchy, didactic and hopelessly one-sided polemic that feels about ten years out of date and seems unaware that Hollywood has caricatured almost every minority at some point during its history. Singh appears completely ignorant of how social media has changed the discourse and in fact the internet as a whole. The best bits are snippets of stand-up comedy from Muslim comics.
Two documentaries that received unanimous praise were Fidai; about an elderly liberation fighter revisiting the war crimes of his past and Hanan Abdalla’s powerful In The Shadow of a Man, in which a quartet of Egyptian women discuss their struggles with family, marriage, divorce and domestic violence in a restrictive culture that favours men and restricts women’s rights.
For me the standout short was without doubt Sanctity, directed by and starring Ahd, a Saudi born actress (she was recently in the outstanding Wadjda) and film-maker. Ahd plays Areej, a pregnant, young Saudi widow who is being exploited for money by her own brother- in- law following the death of her husband. She forms an unlikely alliance with a young dope peddler in order to make ends meet and provide a future for her unborn child. A deserved winner of the development award, Sanctity really does have the feel of a feature in miniature. There is so much texture and nuance in its 37 minute running time, a complex trio of characters and a compelling central plight that could easily be explored in more detail. Potent filmmaking with the palpable tang of real struggle and oppression this is an outstanding, gripping short. I didn’t want it to end.
The festivities surrounding this year’s awards were noticeably more modest with fewer stars and less razzmatazz. Although it robs the fest of news coverage the more low-key approach is arguably a more sensible and sustainable way forward. Last year saw the unveiling of Black Gold, Qatar’s first international co-production, starring Antonio Banderas, Frieda Pinto and Tahar Rahim. A decent sized hit in the region, it failed to generate any box-office heat worldwide. This year’s opener, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (a decent movie with a typically charismatic lead performance from the brilliant Riz Ahmed) is a more modest piece and may have a better shot at international success.
Like the city itself (half of which is made up of stunningly designed sky scrapers, the other littered with construction sites), the festival and the institute is an ambitious and presumably long-term project. As our lunchtime discussion came to a close, we talked about how quickly the DFI can reach its intended destination. It’s clear that the seeds are being sown for a new generation of filmmaking talent and I came away with guarded optimism, for this is a project that will take decades not years to bring to fruition. I really hope it succeeds. Film is just a small part of the big challenges the region faces but the commitment to culture is to be applauded. The stories are there (they always have been) and the challenge is get them made is tough, but the real test is getting them seen – at home as much as abroad. For the DFI to survive the region needs to be able to bring in a loyal audience for their films, as we know that internationally, non-Hollywood product from any country struggles to make enough money to be sustainable.
A fascinating experience, the Doha festival is a young and energetic event in the movie calendar. I hope it will be around and thriving for many years to come – and opening, at some point in the not-too-distant future, with a fully home-grown film.