Hollywood Hits the Desert

The first annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival was an ambitious beguilement. The Daily Beast’s Rebecca Dana reports from the mirage.

The first-annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival was an ambitious beguilement. The Daily Beast’s Rebecca Dana reports from the mirage.

It’s a hazy weekend afternoon in Qatar, the pint-size Islamic nation that juts out from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf. Outside, it’s boiling hot, with near-100 percent humidity. Inside, the A/C is on full-blast, pumping out frigid gusts of air.

We are here, freezing or burning, for the first-ever Doha Tribeca Film Festival, an ambitious and occasionally bewildering four-day celebration of movies and culture in the Qatari capital.

One bold “comedy night” during the festival featured jokes about Barack Obama appointing Morgan Freeman to a hypothetical all-black Cabinet and a riff on whether New York Gov. David Paterson was “seeing” women other than his wife.

The program includes 31 films, mostly Western but with 11 from Arab countries; several extravagant hotel parties; a host of community activities; and one bold “comedy night,” with jokes about Barack Obama appointing Morgan Freeman to a hypothetical all-black Cabinet and a riff on whether New York Gov. David Paterson was “seeing” women other than his wife. A smattering of big-name folks turned up, including Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro and Mira Nair. An awards ceremony for celebrity-philanthropists scheduled to coincide with the festival drew Cher, Josh Hartnett, and Sir Ben Kingsley to Doha as well.

The festival itself is the product of a partnership between two unlikely forces: DeNiro’s Tribeca Film Festival, which helped bring life back to Lower Manhattan when it launched shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, but is now contending with the recession; and Her Royal Highness Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad Al-Thani, beloved daughter of the Emir of Qatar, whose small country sits atop 15 billion barrels of oil, and who has never contended with a recession.

A few years back, young Sheikha, then a student at Duke University, interned for DeNiro and his partners Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff. Upon graduation, the 27-year-old moved back home to join the family business. She runs the Qatar Museums Authority, which oversees the Museum of Islamic Art, a staggering $2 billion structure designed by architect I.M. Pei, with a peerless collection inside—and, now, the film festival.

Nair’s Amelia kicked things off Thursday evening with a free screening seen by an audience of 5,000, according to the state-run English-language newspaper Gulf Times, which is printed each day on glossy paper, immune to the economic contractions plaguing the rest of print media. It closed out Sunday night with a screening of Cairo Time, a film starring Patricia Clarkson.

Officials express high hopes that the Doha festival will be a force for cross-cultural dialogue. The preferred analogy here is of Sheikha Mayassa’s efforts to those of Amelia Earhart: making the world smaller by linking East and West. In an interview in a suite at the Four Seasons Doha, Tribeca partner Jane Rosenthal said her hope was that the festival would elicit “new voices from a region that there’s always a lot of mystery, confusion, and misperceptions about.” And indeed, before closing night, there was already a report in the Gulf Times that Sir Ben was considering projects in Qatar, another headlined “DTFF step in the right direction, says actors,” and a front page feature on Nair’s support for film ratings.

From unofficial sources, there was scattered criticism. A few of the filmmakers balked at tough content restrictions, including requests to cut scenes and high age limits for films that have even faint undertones of sex or sexuality. An American businessman talked about notorious mistreatment of foreign contract workers—information about which is blocked on some local computers. At the opening night party, in which professional dancers performed Fred Astaire-style choreography, a Qatari native expressed her frustration that the festival had opened with an American film instead of a Middle Eastern one. She fears too much Western influence. “All of these young girls, taking off their hijabs,” she said and shrugged her shoulders.

Qatar has spent lavishly in recent years on projects that help bolster its image as an oasis of open discourse and free debate in the Middle East, launching Al Jazeera English with Western journalists David Frost and Dave Marash as anchors, and building Education City, a college town with outposts from major American universities right in the middle of Doha. Likewise, the country spent lavishly in realizing the Sheikha’s festival vision, flying celebrities and journalists, including The Daily Beast, over gratis, putting everyone up at five-star hotels, filling them all with food and drink, taking them on desert tours and little shopping trips to the local souq. Attendees received schedules for the festival in their hotel rooms—pre-programmed on an iPod touch.

British actor Alexander Siddiq, who stars opposite Clarkson in Cairo Time, calls the whole thing a “great, delightful freebie.” He’s been have a grand time since he arrived.

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“Doha is just like Vegas,” he says, “but without the sex.”

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Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.