Doha, Abu Dhabi Film Festivals Bring Culture and Profit

» Featured Columnists | By Alma Kadragic | October 29, 2010 9:49 AM ET

(DOHA, QATAR) -- When I arrived here late yesterday, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) was in its third day with two more days to go before the closing gala on Saturday evening. The five day DTFF opened on October 26 almost immediately after the 10 day Abu Dhabi Film Festival closed on October 23 which makes it easy to compare the two events.

DTFF is newer, having started last year, with the Tribeca Film Festival in New York as a model for conducting a small but influential event.  ADFF which is four years old began life as the Middle East Film Festival and introduced the new name this year.  The Abu Dhabi and Doha Festivals will be followed in December by the oldest of the trio at seven years, the week-long Dubai International Film Festival from December 12-19.

Why so many festivals so close together in time, all of them devoted to giving screen time to Arab films as well as a combination of art films and commercial films from the US and Europe? One answer has to do with the current interest in reawakening Arab societies to produce more examples of their culture in films and other mediums. The Abu Dhabi and Dubai festivals are connected to major attempts by their emirates to develop a film industry in the UAE and in the Middle East.

Doha is a partnership between the Doha Film Institute founded by Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Tribeca Enterprises. Tribeca was founded by actor Robert De Niro with partners Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff. De Niro is a regular participant at DTFF and showed Stone, his latest film, this year.

The Doha Film Institute is Qatar's first international organization dedicated to film education and entertainment. Cultural partners include Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation and Mira Nair's Maisha Filmmaker Labs.

We learned at DTFF that the world's first big budget film about Arabs produced by an Arab and filmed in two Arab countries, Tunisia and Qatar is being co-financed by the Doha Film Institute. Tunisian born filmmaker Tarak Ben Ammar optioned the novel Black Gold 30 years ago. It took him until now to organize the production and secure distribution from Universal and Warner Brothers. Filming is under way in Tunisia; the crew will be filming in Qatar in January for a month. Ben Ammar said that the film will be ready in time for worldwide release during Christmas season 2011.

Film festivals like these are marketplaces for films that have been made but haven't yet had major distribution and also places where contacts happen, where filmmakers meet potential producers and others in the industry. Young Emirati filmmaker Ali Mostafa who made the award winning film City of Life gains exposure by attending DTFF. He doesn't have a film at the festival this time, but he's networking with future partners and helping inspire students to succeed as he has.

Beyond the film industry and allied trades, however, is something else that plays a major role in developing countries like the UAE and Qatar. Film festivals are part of the culture business and the culture business can be connected to construction, development, and real estate, both commercial and residential.

For example, DTFF is taking place at the Katara Cultural Village, just outside the West Bay area in Doha where most of the top hotels and commercial office buildings are located. Today when you drive into the Cultural Village, you see new structures built in ways that recall traditional Arab architecture on the right side of the road. On the left side is a long fence and beyond that, you can just make out an enormous and long sand dune.

That is the beginning of the residential area that will be created as part of the cultural village. It is similar in concept to Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, future home of the Louvre, Guggenheim, and Zayed Museums as well as the performing arts center. Along the iconic buildings from Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Zaha Hadid will be villas and hotels, all expensive and exclusive.

It's no secret that culture attracts the wealthiest home owners, be they residents or vacationers who appreciate the proximity to cultural destinations. Doha is fortunate in being able to house its film festival in a cultural village with an open air amphitheater as the highlight. Although some films are shows in multiplexes in the City Center and Villagio malls, most of the screenings and all of the Doha Talks and the TEDx session take place at Katara.

In Abu Dhabi the film festival located the major screenings and galas at the Emirates Palace. However, the Circle series of industry meetings that took place for three days before the festival started were at the Intercontinental Hotel. Most films were shown at Marina Mall. The same thing will happen in Dubai where there isn't a single location that can absorb most of the festival's activities, so film goers and industry representatives will be driving all around town for a week.

Whether at the moment there is a kind of overkill of festivals in this small corner of the Arab world remains to be seen. Perhaps not. Perhaps the market can absorb all of them. The proof will be in whether the young filmmakers like Ali Mostafa can find encouragement and financing and whether the Arab world will build more theaters for public showing of films. Today there are more theaters in Abu Dhabi and Dubai than in countries like Tunisia and Syria. At least the film festivals create some publicity and thus likely demand for films from within the Arab world to be shown in the 23 countries that comprise the Middle East and North Africa region, MENA.

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