Red-carpet glamour amid the sand dunes

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As both Arab and western film-makers make the pilgrimage to Qatar, Alice Jones watches as Doha Tribeca Film Festival unleashes its star power in the desert

If you want to know what's happening in Doha, just take a look at its skyscrapers. Last week there was barely an inch of the city's walls that wasn't plastered with a gigantic billboard. Venus and Serena Williams stared moodily out from the Khalifa International Tennis Complex where they were competing in the WTA Championships.

Across town in West Bay, the distinctive Zig Zag twin towers were covered, from basement to 34th floor, with garish footballer mosaics to launch Qatar's bid to host the 2022 World Cup. And, most striking of all, a series of black-and-white photographs of movie stars by Brigitte Lacombe surrounded the newly opened cultural complex Katara like glamorous, well-lit battlements for the opening of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

The writing's on the wall and it says that Doha is having a moment. In a week where competition was intense – even Kate Moss flew in, storming the stage to sing "Summertime" at a jazz concert – the buzz was loudest around the film festival, imported directly from downtown Manhattan to the desert. So while the Emir of Qatar and his super-stylish wife were in London (where they now own more property – from Harrods to Canary Wharf – than the Queen, who hosted them), the international film set was jetting in to the Persian gulf for five days of movies, workshops and, of course, parties.

Robert De Niro, Kevin Spacey, wearing a flat cap to stave off the 35-degree sunshine, and Naomie Harris were among the big names to walk the red carpet. Slumdog star Freida Pinto bared her shoulders in emerald Dior for the Qatar premiere of Miral, in which she stars as a Palestinian activist, while the film's director, Julian Schnabel, squired his glamorous girlfriend Rula Jabreal (the real-life Miral) around town on a golf buggy, wearing what looked suspiciously like pyjamas and deck shoes.

Proceedings kicked off in typically lavish style with a gala premiere of the French-Algerian movie Hors-la-loi ("Outside the law") at Katara, a brand-new, million-square-metre temple to culture, complete with marble open-air amphitheatre, glittering opera house, theatre, cinema, souk, pristine golden beach and numerous Shisha restaurants. Since the amphitheatre was out of bounds (the authorities want a properly Qatari event for the official opening), the festival constructed an enormous purpose-built cinema beneath the stars, just for the five-day event. Perched on the shores of the Persian gulf like a giant, twinkling spaceship, it seated 2,000 on stadium seats (red-plush armchairs for the VIPs) in front of a 20m-high screen, with state-of-the-art surround sound. The sweltering evening heat proved too much, though, for many local women in hijabs who left before the free screening began.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the complex, the film had a glitzier screening inside the air-conditioned opera house, where red-carpet guests included Bollywood beauty Mallika Sherawat, in a daring cutaway gown, and jury member Salma Hayek Pinault, who remained tight-lipped about whether her father-in-law was on the brink of selling Christie's to the Emir of Qatar. Afterwards, VIPs headed over to the opening-night party on the Pearl – a man-made island where the super-rich moor their yachts, buy their Jimmy Choos and eat Gordon Ramsay's food. Guests were served dainty curries by Qatar Airways staff and sipped fruit juice. Alcohol was banned on the terrace, so westerners crammed into the sweltering bar to drink, missing out on the band – and the stunning view.

Thus Middle East meets West at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, now in its second year. The super-cool New York Tribeca film festival, was set up by De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff in the aftermath of 9/11. After an internship at the festival in 2006, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the 28-year-old daughter of the Emir was inspired to bring it home to Qatar. Amanda Palmer, a former head of entertainment at Al Jazeera and presenter of the channel's Fabulous Picture Show came on board as executive director and Martin Scorsese, De Niro and Ben Kingsley all signed up for the successful first edition.

Last year the opening film was Mira Nair's Hollywood aviation epic Amelia, starring Hilary Swank, which had its premiere at IM Pei's striking Museum of Islamic Art. This year's opening Hors-la-loi was a bold statement of intent for the rapidly maturing Middle Eastern festival. "This year, as an Arab festival in an Arab country, we thought it would be better to open the festival with an Arab film", says programmer Scandar Copti. "It's obvious, really." Rachid Bouchareb's bloody, ultra-violent tale of three brothers caught up in the Algerian struggle for independence provoked protests at Cannes for its perceived anti-French message.

There were no protests in Doha, but there was all of the ritz you'd expect from a festival in a state which boasts 15bn barrels of oil, 26tn cubic metres of natural gas and the highest GDP per capita of any country on earth. There were trips to speed around the sand dunes in 4x4s, ride camels at the souk and swim in the Persian gulf. The after-parties took place around the pool on the rooftop of the W Hotel, where DJs were flown in from Pacha to entertain guests. Special events included an evening of cross-cultural stand-up comedy – some in Arabic – and an open-air performance of Nitin Sawhney's score for the 1929 silent film A Throw of Dice by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. At the Four Seasons, a World Cup-bid event saw guests settle down in deckchairs with plates of lobster to watch an evening of football films on the hotel's exclusive beach. The feelgood Slumdog imitator Africa United was followed by the gritty The Two Escobars, a thrilling documentary about the entwined fortunes of Colombia's footballing hero Andres Escobar and the drug baron Pablo Escobar.

Among all of this, it was sometimes hard to concentrate on the films but there were 51 of them, from 36 countries, in an eclectic programme which ranged from an Imax screening of Paranormal Activity 2 to Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy. Other highlights included François Ozon's campy Potiche, in which Catherine Deneuve gives a wonderfully warm performance as a 1970s trophy wife on the path to emancipation; Denis Villeneuve's Incendies, a compelling family drama in which French-Canadian twins set out to find the Middle Eastern father they never knew and brother they never knew they had; and Boy, a charmingly bonkers father-and-son tale from the up-and-coming New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who has previously directed Flight of the Conchords.

Fittingly, it was in the Arab section of the programme that the most interesting films were to be found, including the festival's four world premieres. And for the first time 10 Arab films competed to win a total of $410,000 in prize money. Hawi, a gripping tale of a prisoner with unfinished business, set in modern-day Alexandria, scooped the main prize. Grandma, A Thousand Times an intimate family documentary by the Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour, and The Mosque, about villagers in rural Morocco who refuse to allow the director to demolish his film-set mosque when filming wraps, were also of note.

"People are interested in the region because they want to hear new stories. We have a lot to say", says Chadi Zeneddine, one of the programmers of the festival. He went to LA for a year and a half after making his Beirut-set debut feature Falling From Earth but has now returned to the region. "And many others are coming back too", he says. "This is where we can make things happen. We want to tell our stories and here is the best place for us. They have the money and it's changing. There are a lot of festivals in the region, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, too, but there's no competition here. We're all aiming to create an industry in the Arab world, or rather to make it stronger, less fragile".

May saw the launch of the Doha Film Institute at Cannes. The organisation aims to "empower storytellers and build a long-term film industry in Qatar", through financing, production, education and, once a year, the festival. As such there was also a wealth of activity around last week's screenings. Kevin Spacey, in town to walk the red carpet for his latest, Casino Jack (about the disgraced US lobbyist Jack Abramoff), ran an acting masterclass for emerging talents and Mira Nair shared the wisdom of her Maisha Film Lab, a film-making bootcamp in Uganda.

One of the most interesting panels dealt with comedy in the Middle East, featuring Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-American stand-up, who turned to comedy from acting because he was "sick of always playing the terrorist or the cab driver". In 2005 he embarked on the Axis of Evil tour, taking stand-up to countries – from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait – where it was an alien concept. His debut film, Just Like Us, follows his journey around "an area just learning how to laugh" and his trials along the way. In 2008. he was banned from Dubai for a joke in which he mixed the call to prayer and a nightclub beat.

Censorship remains an issue. In Kuwait, the comedians were told: "Guys you cannot do jokes about sex, drugs, religion or politics." The rules at DTFF are not quite so stringent but nudity and sex scenes, at least, are to be avoided. "What we do is self censorship. If you decide to come to Doha you need to respect Doha and its people. They want to be open to the world, but pay respect to their traditions", explains Zeneddine. Comedy is a valuable tool in tackling taboos and this year the festival had a vibrant strand of funny films, including the irreverent Man Without a Cellphone, about young Palestinians dating outside their religions.

"A good film is a good film," says Copti. "People have discovered the power of film-making. I'm very optimistic. I'm sure in a few years we will see a dynamic, sustainable film industry here."

While the festival imports a touch of Tribeca glamour to the sand dunes, it's what happens after the five days of partying that counts. And the signs are good for a fledgling local industry. There are two Disney films in development, both in Arabic, with local directors. Meanwhile the private Qatari film-fund Al Noor announced a $50m film about the life of the Ottoman sultan Mehmed. A further epic trilogy, about the life of Mohammed, to be made in state-of-the-art studios in the desert with a big-name Hollywood director is also rumoured. Welcome to Dohllywood.

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