Hollywood glamour at Doha film festival

By Shaimaa Khalil
BBC News, Doha

  • Published

It's 1730 local time and the red carpet is buzzing. The celebrities' PR agents are hurriedly briefing the arriving journalists and security guards are getting into position.

Any minute, the stars will be coming along on the closing night of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival - a collaboration between the Doha film institute and Robert De Niro's Tribeca Festival in New York.

Image caption,
Robert De Niro, founder of New York's Tribeca Film Festival, was walking, talking and signing

"Keep the interviews short, so the stars can move along quickly," one PR agent warns.

"Oh and by the way Mr De Niro is walking, not talking."

This is not Cannes or Venice - Doha is a much smaller city in the heart of the Gulf and film festivals aren't the norm here.

But judging by the excitement in the air, the city is hungry for events like this, now in its second year.

Despite his publicist's best efforts to whizz him along the red carpet, Robert De Niro stops by.

"Being here to be a part of this festival, it's a no-brainer," he says. "It didn't take much for me to figure out that we had to come."

Young Talent

Another Hollywood A-lister taking part this year is Salma Hayek, whose father is of Lebanese descent.

Image caption,
Salma Hayek (R) shares the spotlight with Yosra and Ahmed Ahmed

"It's time [young Arab film-makers] have a strong voice internationally and they are heard," says Ms Hayek, a member of the jury.

"I think this film festival is a good platform for that."

Apart from bringing a touch of Hollywood glamour to Doha, the film festival is part of a greater ambition for a sustainable film industry in Qatar and the Gulf.

It is also seen as a springboard for up-and-coming film-makers in the region, giving young Qatari and Arab film-makers unprecedented access to the top names in world cinema.

Wafaa Al Saffar, along with seven other students in the Doha Tribeca film-makers' programme, got the chance to pitch their ideas for 10-minute films and work on their scripts with mentors in New York.

They even screen their films in front of an audience for the first time during the festival.

"I wouldn't have had this chance without the Doha Film institute," says Wafaa, as she raves about her meetings with Indian directors Mira Nair and Shekhar Kapur, as well as US cinematographer Sandi Sissel.

After the screenings, the young directors have their pictures taken with their proud parents - some of whom were initially sceptical about their children's choice of career.

But Wafaa tells me that things are changing in her conservative country.

"Qatar is moving forward, no-one can deny that... The way people think about it (cinema) is changing," she says.

Top prizes

Ten directors took part in this year's Arab Film Competition.

Image caption,
Egyptian actor Adel Imam received the Lifetime Achievement Award

Ibrahim El-Batout's Hawi (Magician) won Best Arab film and went away with $100,000 (£62,460).

The film pays tribute to Batout's favourite Egyptian city, Alexandria and uses his trademark low budget and highly improvised film-making style.

Mahmoud Kaabour's Teta Alf Marra (Grandma a Thousand Times) received a special jury mention and the audience award for best documentary.

In the film, Kaabour's grandmother shares her memories of her late husband and their home country Lebanon.

On the film's screening night, Kaabour walks down the red carpet with his beaming grandmother.

"I didn't know he was making a film! He just came and told me to do this and that, and I just did what he told me," she gushes.

International competition

In only its second year, the festival has become one of Qatar's greatest attractions.

Never before has one event in the oil-rich country gathered Hollywood and Arab film stars all in one place.

It's quite rare to see Adel Imam, the famous Egyptian comedian, and Yosra, one of the Arab world's most famous leading ladies, share a red carpet with Robert De Niro, Kevin Spacey and Salma Hayek.

Even though the Arab film industry has been around for decades, it's never been able to break out into an international market.

But Tarek El Shenawy, an Egyptian film critic, says that first steps have been taken.

He points to the late Youssef Chahine, one of the pioneers of co-production between the Arab and Western film-makers.

And he cites other Arab films that have competed in international festivals in the last two years - Rachid Bouchareb's Outside the Law and Nadine Labaki's Caramel at Cannes, and Egyptian film The Traveller at Venice last year.

Even after the curtain comes down on this year's Doha film festival, the work of the Doha film institute continues, and with it, so does the search for new talent in the region.

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