Sir Ben Kingsley is sitting on the terrace of the Al Mourjan Restaurant, looking out over the Arabian Gulf. He goes almost unnoticed at the launch of the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival, as attendees take in the panoramic views of the IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art and skyscrapers sitting atop 15 billion barrels of oil. Under the sweltering blue sky, Mira Nair, whose movie Amelia has been chosen to show first among the 31 films scheduled over the next four days, introduces Martin Scorsese, who is in town to support the World Cinema Foundation restoration of Shadi Abdel Salam's 1969 classic The Mummy.
Swanky? Just a little. Most festivals let you know what time a film is going to start by giving you a free catalogue. Here, the timetable was pre-loaded onto an iPod Touch programmed with alarmed reminders of screening times. Tribeca, which was started by Robert De Niro and his colleagues Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff after September 11, 2001, has risked its reputation as the hippest festival on the block by using its brand to set Doha's festival apart from the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF), which had its third edition in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago, and the more established Dubai Film Festival in December.
MEIFF in particular seems worried about the new upstart. This year they employed the former artistic director of Tribeca, Peter Scarlet, to head their festival and also tried to raise the level of glitz in Abu Dhabi with the appearances of Hilary Swank and Demi Moore at their opening night event. Bagging the two-time Oscar winner Swank was particularly cunning, given the announcement that Amelia would have its international premier in Doha. That Swank chose to grace MEIFF, where she did not have a movie showing, rather than attend the international premiere of a movie that she not only stars in, but is also credited as an executive producer of, was surprising. But as Rosenthal told me in the lavish tearoom of the Four Seasons hotel, "If you want to come and support your film then that's great, but Tribeca are not about to pay people to come to the festival." Swank should be kicking herself. She missed one of the most spectacular screenings I've ever witnessed.
The opening night festivities took place in the grounds of the Museum of Islamic Art. There were two simultaneous screenings of the film. The one I attended was inside IM Pei's structure, alongside Martin Scorsese and Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani, the 27-year-old daughter of the Emir of Qatar and the driving force behind creating a film festival in the small state. While the dignitaries sat in the air-conditioned cinema, a free, open-air screening took place, attended by thousands. Nair seemed especially happy that planes could be seen flying over the massive screen as her biopic of Amelia Earhart unfolded.
The festival's refusal to pay appearance fees is remarkably brave in a region where money talks. Instead, cash was apportioned not only to ensure that guests were provided with a good time – desert safaris, boat trips, a gallop around the Royal stables and VIP tickets to the women's tennis were all on offer – but also to establish a programme to encourage the emergence of local filmmakers. The most interesting and best event of the festival was a showcase of one-minute films by nine local Qatari filmmakers under the guidance of Scandar Copti, the co-director of Ajami, which won the Sutherland Trophy for best first film at the London Film Festival last week.
There was excitement, awe and pleasure on the faces of the filmmakers when Scorsese stepped up to comment on the movies. The director said that he thought it was more difficult to make a "one-minute film than a two-hour film" and recounted how he had made his best-known short film, The Big Shave, for an avant-garde film festival in circumstances similar to those faced by these first-time Qatari directors. In the audience was Hany-Abu Assad, the director of the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now, who said that he was a little concerned that the films "seemed to be influenced most greatly by American cinema, with not enough attention being paid to the cinematic tradition of Egypt". Still, the event was such a success that it was repeated two days later, this time with Robert De Niro and the Palestinian actress Hiam Abbas in attendance.
There was so much happening over the course of the packed weekend that it was often difficult to keep up. There was a surprise screening of Spike Jonze's forthcoming art-house movie for kids,Where the Wild Things Are, which also doubled up as the opening of the new IMAX cinema housed in a shopping mall that has been designed to look like Venice. You can even take a gondola ride around it. Who needs the Venice Film Festival?
There were also 11 films from the Arab region showing. Particularly impressive was Asghar Farhadi's About Elly, which won an award at the New York Tribeca in May, and Raja Amari's Buried Secrets.
The actor Patricia Clarkson arrived to support her latest, the cross- cultural drama Cairo Time, which closed the festival. She was hanging out with Scorsese, who directs her in his forthcoming Shutter Island, at the swanky W hotel on the Friday night. Also spotted at the numerous parties over the weekend were Josh Hartnett, Bob Geldof and Cher, who was in town for an awards ceremony for celebrity philanthropists.
The best way to tell if this New York-Doha marriage is ultimately a success or not, will be if it spawns any new Qatar filmmaking talent. For now, though, the signs are good.
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