Cinema is already the number-one entertainment for the Arab world big Hollywood films and Egyptian films go down well, and there’s an enormous appetite for feature films
CINEMA IS ALREADY the number-one entertainment for the Arab world — big Hollywood films and Egyptian films go down well, and there’s an enormous appetite for feature films. People are increasingly going to the cinema, and by expanding the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and getting audiences for the programmed films, we’re hoping to show distributors they should be showing more world films here. We have partnered with the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, hence the Tribeca in the name.
There are 78 films this year, including 44 feature films, and we have expanded the Arab Film Competition to include documentaries. TV has played a very large role in the Middle Eastern consumption of film historically. Film distribution has mainly been controlled through TV and a lot of documentaries have gone straight to TV, so the way the TV documentary has been made has been most influential. We want to find the new type of documentary film-making which reflects a much more artistic and textural approach and which has struggled to get distribution, potentially. We wanted to showcase this other type of artistic approach to documentaries.
OUR JURY HAS some high-profile filmmakers on it. Nick Broomfield, who made the recent Sarah Palin: You Betcha! as well as Battle for Haditha and Ghosts, about illegal Chinese immigrants coming to the UK, was chosen for the jury because he’s a true pioneer. I want audiences in the Arab world to discover his work.
Are there any subjects which can’t be tackled? No, that’s not true at all. We’re not afraid of documentaries. They have to be challenging and confident and take audiences to subjects and create discussion and debate. It’s a misconception that certain subjects aren’t covered. We definitely programme films being mindful of the diverse nature of the culture and their comfort levels. I see films that deal with a lot of sensitive topics, but it’s how they deal with them. They might be a little bit more pronounced on how they deal with a sensitive subject.
THERE ARE OVER 40,000 people who come to the festival every year, and 35 countries are represented with the films. It’s very diverse. Cinema attendance here is a family affair, particularly on Fridays, so the family genre is very popular. People watch films at least twice a week — it’s very much part of their social life. The most popular genres besides family have been horror and action; the demand and the interest in other types and genres of films haven’t been fulfilled.
I’VE ALWAYS BEEN very interested in the universality of comedy. We have a comedy this year, Almanya —Welcome to Germany, a Turkish-German film that deals with inter-religious issues, stereotypes. It was written by two Muslim sisters. Comedy in Egyptian cinema has been around for 100 years, and there’s an appreciation of comedy that is very Western but always appropriate here. Where Do We Go Now? is a musical about sectarian violence in Lebanon, so not a comedy but something lighter.
WHAT WE'VE ALREADY seen with the Arab Spring is that in Tunisia production costs went up. It became more difficult for people to make films — the last thing that someone’s doing is getting a grant for film-making. But we had to reach out to North Africa after the Arab Spring and make sure that people knew that we were there to support their film-making. There’s a mindset change: certain echelons lost power so there was an opening up of what you could talk about and make films about. I see film as a window for them to tell their stories. It’s a very exciting time for Egypt, which has been very controlled and is about to have a shift where people can now explore and tell stories in the way they might not have before.
WE SUPPORT A scheme called ‘Harrer, Harrer’, which means ‘Liberation, Liberation’ and takes a team through the region to make short films. Some of them really speak to the physicality of what happened, the horror of what they experienced. Others were vignettes and psychological journeys into that world. We’ve made 50 one-minute films. We hope to travel and grow it.
It’s quite soon since the revolution began, so it’s difficult to find documentaries that have been finished yet, but Rouge Parole has been: it’s one of the first documentaries to talk about the uprising in Tunisia. There’s a range of subjects in the films this year beyond the revolutions.
There’s a film about women boxing in Tunisia — it’s absolutely beautiful. Boxing was very popular in the Arab world; it’s considered taboo now but it’s empowering.
Yearning looks into women’s roles in society. Forty per cent of films this year are from women, which is higher than any other film festival. It shows so much is progressing here. Female film-makers are writing and directing and finding audiences, so I don’t think this gender division exists in Arab cinema. That’s why it’s such an important and influential medium.
Amanda Palmer is executive director of the Doha Film Institute