Driving through Doha, the capital city of the oil-and-gas-state of Qatar, equates to a tour through an extended building site. Shells of buildings, heads of cranes and soaring phallic glass skyscrapers rise from the arid flats in all directions. Qatar is clearly a wealthy, flourishing state.
From October 26-30 the city teams with foreigners. Adding to the already significant expatriate community are visitors attending the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF), but amid the milieu of young Americans and Brits propping up the public relations and logistics teams for the festival and the Sri Lankans, Kenyans and South-East Asians working as drivers, hosts, hotel staff, hospitality workers and construction workers, the invited filmmakers, actors, press and VIP guests are largely indistinguishable.
Funded generously by H.E Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and supported by the highly regarded New York Tribeca Film Festival founded by Robert De Niro and co, the DTFF in only its second year has quickly asserted itself as an international festival of note. Thus most filmmakers involved become overly concerned about whether their films translate globally. The age-old question persists: is film a universal art form?
Jane Rosenthal, the elegant and affable film producer and co-founder of Tribeca Film Festival, has a clear vision for Doha emulating what Tribeca Film Festival has already achieved – the revitalisation of the city’s film community. Rosenthal says the partnership with Sheikha Al Mayassa can be described as “cultural diplomacy”, but it is first and foremost born out of respect and friendship. “We became friendly with Mayassa [following a visit to New York], we admired her goals and vision to create opportunities for her country, to nourish culture.”
The Arab filmmakers the DTFF is promoting have, Rosenthal says, the talent to make a film that “breaks out internationally”. Thus she remains committed to the relationship. “We felt that through film one can change people’s perceptions. There are always universal themes that people can relate to,” she says in her clear confident New York lilt. “There are similarities in a family dynamic whether you’re in the Middle East or New York.”
This vision of film as a universal medium was at the forefront of conversations throughout the four-day festival. Nick Moran, the English actor (from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, 1998) and director (Telstar: The Joe Meek Story, 2008 and The Kid, 2010) agreed readily with Rosenthal’s view. In Doha to introduce his new film The Kid and serve as a jury member for the Best Arab Film competition alongside Salma Hayek, Yosra, Bhavna Talwar and Danis Tanovic, (which was won by Ibrahim El Batout’s film Hawi), Moran says that when making a film that is essentially about triumph over adversity, as The Kid is intended, “it could be set in the Middle East or Croydon”.
But what about the local audience these filmmakers are so eager to relate to? Michael a young Kenyan from Nairobi who has been in Doha for a little over two years, did not see a single film in the festival. But his enthusiasm for the event is obvious. When the Doha Tribeca Film Festival opened, Michael received a promotion to drive one of the fleet of Jaguars that are used to shuttle VIP guests around the city for the week. It is a good job he says with a grin, and the best part is “I get to talk to nice people all day who are from overseas”.
On Friday October 29 – a public holiday – the festival opened its doors for family day and Qataris arrived en masse braving the dry heat of midday to participate in the activities DTFF had programmed, from film screenings to family workshops. Some came to see the 10 Arab feature films, but more were there to see the 41 foreign films, many of which starred some of Hollywood’s finest. Robert De Niro and Edward Norton had a film in the program called Stone, Kevin Spacey was in Doha briefly for the premiere of his American political thriller Casino Jack, and other directors and actors came from Norway, Ireland, Canada, India and England among other countries. Director, writer and actor Taika Waititi travelled from New Zealand to introduce his latest film Boy to an Arab audience, keen to learn whether his wonderful tragic comedy would resonate.
“I have never been to this part of the world and it just seemed like such a cool opportunity,” says Waititi, who had committed to a busy schedule in Doha, participating in Q&As following the Boy screenings and in Doha TEDx (one of the series of conferences hosted around the world designed to bring new ideas to the fore).
If he had concerns the parochialisms in Boy would be lost in translation, after the first screening (attending by approximately 300 people) his doubts were soon allayed. “When you’re in a new country, you never know what people will think but this was a good reaction,” Waititi notes.
He cites a conversation he had with a Palestinian woman after the first screening as proof of the film’s appeal. The woman experienced a similar moment to one depicted in the film when her father brought home a microwave believing he had purchased a new television.
Before Boy’s final screening on Friday 29 October, Waititi had the Tedx auditorium, full of earnest young Qatari students, jet-lagged press and VIP guests enthralled reciting tales of his childhood in Ruatoki, New Zealand, sharing jokes about art and relaying his view that the pursuit of wealth is not all there is to life. Amid all the laughter and rapturous applause the latter point was met with silence. There are limits to universalism after all. Some life philosophies beyond the silver screen just don’t translate across borders.