Qatar sets scene for film industry

The wedge-shaped neighbourhood of Tribeca in Manhattan seems an unlikely source of an import to Qatar. But to develop its own film industry, Qatar has forged a partnership with the Tribeca Film Festival in order to launch a five-day cinema event of its own in November.

Doing so brings the idiosyncratic spirit of the Tribeca festival to Qatar. The original festival was founded in the aftermath of September 11 2001, to revitalise the Tribeca and lower Manhattan districts of New York, home to the remains of the World Trade Centre. The founders of TFF, who include actor Robert De Niro (pictured above), hoped film would lure people downtown, stimulate dialogue and help heal a shattered community.

In the same vein, Tribeca Film Festival Doha aspires to encourage dialogue and use film as an agent of cultural diplomacy. It also aims to inspire and train a first generation of Qatari movie makers.

Future Qatari filmmakers “will make stories that show the pluralism of this culture, rather than just extremes,” says the Qatar Museums Authority, the emirate’s umbrella arts agency, which in December unveiled the Islamic Museum of Art, designed by I.M. Pei, the Chinese-American architect.

Tribeca Film Festival Doha is the brainchild of Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, daughter of Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar’s emir.

Sheikha Mayassa knows the Tribeca festival well. While a student at Duke University, North Carolina, a few years ago, she became an intern at TFF because she was interested in adapting a novel to film and wanted production experience.

“My father loved films and we would watch lots growing up as children, so a film festival was always something that would happen. The question was when,” explains Sheikha Mayassa in an e-mail.

She also undertook an internship at the United Nations, which underscored her belief that film complements diplomacy and international affairs. TFF was a form of expression that “mixed politics with film”, she says.

But other than Egypt, Arab countries do not have sizeable film industries.

“People do go to films in Qatar but Qataris don’t have an indigenous film culture,” says Jane Rosenthal, a veteran film producer and co-founder of TFF. “The festival will help nurture that.”

The Qatar Museums Authority is not alone in launching a film festival to nurture a budding cultural scene. Doha hosts the Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have both also established film festivals in recent years.

Abu Dhabi is doing more than just screening films at its Middle East International Film Festival. The New York Film Academy, a Manhattan-based film school, has opened a branch in Abu Dhabi, adding to its offshoots in more than a dozen cities worldwide.

Tribeca Film Festival Doha itself will screen approximately 40 movies from new and established filmmakers. Next year’s programme is still in the works but it intends to showcase films about the local Qatari community and Arab culture, as well as international movies. There will also be a series of workshops and master classes designed to train fledgling filmmakers.

The festival also plans to stage “The Doha Conversations”, a series of dialogues between high-profile global figures.

Ms Rosenthal, producer of films such as Wag the Dog, Analyse That and Meet the Parents, did not foresee that TFF would become a cultural ambassador on a global scale. The festival initially began as a one-off event to help heal New York and revive a devastated neighbourhood.

Ms Rosenthal had worked in the New York neighbourhood for nearly 20 years and in 1988 co-founded the Tribeca Film Center with Mr De Niro, a long-time collaborator and friend. When the first hijacked aircraft struck the World Trade Centre, she was just a couple of blocks away. “The horror was right in front of me,” she recalls.

Mr De Niro, Ms Rosenthal and her husband Craig Hatkoff, hatched the idea for TFF and launched it just four months after 9/11.

The three were intent on bringing people back to lower Manhattan to “get back to normal”, Ms Rosenthal says.

From that simple objective, the festival has flourished. It attracted 150,000 visitors in its first year and generated $10.5m in economic activity for lower Manhattan. Seven years on, 400,000 people attended and the festival created $104m.

“The first year we had nothing in mind but to bring more people to lower Manhattan,” says Ms Rosenthal. “Now the festival has grown and made its mark.”

How TFF will make its mark in the Gulf remains to be seen but Sheikha Mayassa hopes for a lasting impact.

“Our goal is to invest in the people,” she says. “It’s not about a festival that comes and goes, but rather a festival that creates a sustainable foundation for the growth of a film industry within.”

By Amy Yee

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