Amanda Palmer, executive director of the Doha Film Institute (DFI), talks about the second edition of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and how the DFI is supporting Arab filmmaking.

Amanda Palmer is executive director of the Doha Film Institute (DFI), founded by Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, which encompasses all of Qatar’s film-related activities, including the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) and year-round film education, production and financing initiatives.

This year’s festival screened 51 films over five days (Oct 26-30) and held a wide range of educational programmes, including a master class on acting by Kevin Spacey. The DFI also aims to support around ten Arab films a year and gave completion funds to four films that screened at this year’s DTFF including Lebanese film-maker Ghassan Salhab’s The Mountain and satire Man Without A Cellphone, from Palestinian film-maker Sameh Zoabi.

The DFI has also come on board as a financier for Quinta Communications’ $55m Black Gold starring Antonio Banderas, Tahar Rahim and Freida Pinto, which is currently shooting in Tunisia and will film for four weeks in Qatar early next year.

Palmer has lived for several years in the Middle East and was previously head of entertainment at Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera English.

 What kind of feedback did you get from the industry and audience at the festival this year?

After we screened Rachid Bouchareb’s film [Outside The Law] on opening night, the biggest response I had from Qatari nationals is that they were thrilled to see so many Arab stars in one place, and that was a great reminder that we need to continue to cater for that audience.

From the educational perspective, we had four days of intense programming for all the film-makers we work with year-round – providing them with industry meet-ups and tips on how to penetrate the festival – and that has been hugely successful. Then for the industry we tried to create a mini market – because film-makers from the region tell us that besides the DFI supporting film, the best thing we can do is to help them connect with people and talent.

I have to say that this is tough festival to programme because we are in a community that is so diverse. We have 200,000 Qatari nationals, which is a more conservative element, but also has a very young population that travels a lot and is watching films all year round. So it’s not like we’re bringing something that is alien, but it’s certainly unusual to have a film festival here.

Is there any pressure for the festival to eventually break even?

What always impresses me about Qatar is that they understand that cultural investment is important. If we were in the business of making money we would have some really horrible branding and sponsorship and no-one wants to dilute the experience. So for us, this is a cultural investment and DFI is a cultural investment. We’re building from the ground up. As you know,  there’s a lot of investment happening in this country and it’s wonderful to see Qatar investing in the culture of film.

There are now three major film festivals in the Gulf – how does DTFF differentiate itself?

Well it was very important to this community that they felt a part of their own festival. So when we started planning, we looked at festivals that have managed to achieve that and I think Pusan [in South Korea] is a great example. It grows its own local talent and has helped build an indigenous film industry in less than ten years. They totally support their young film-makers, their audience participation is great, and now everybody wants to go there.

So we looked at our own festival and decided that everything we do year-round has to feel like it comes out of Qatar. When ex-pats come here, they judge us on the international, and so they should, and I hope our programme speaks for itself. But there’s all this other programming that’s going on at the side-lines that is critical to the success of this festival because we wouldn’t exist if the community didn’t allow it.

How is the DFI and the festival helping film-makers from the Arabic-speaking region?

A lot of filmmakers wanted to come to the festival and felt DFI was for them, but a lot of Arab film-makers can’t get to festivals because they have trouble even finishing their films. So DFI presented this opportunity that we’re going to help you finish your film, in addition to the on-going educational process that we hope will encourage a whole new generation.

We put completion money into four films that are screening here and the financing had nothing to do with getting to this festival – it was all about getting their films out of the editing suite. If it made sense for their films to go to Berlin or another festival, we would be happy with that, because I want them to get the best support they can.

Will the DFI divide its financing between smaller projects from the region and larger international films like Black Gold?

Yes we will – although I’m pleased that Black Gold ticks some of the boxes that are part of the DFI mission. For one thing, it’s filming in Qatar which means we can use it as an opportunity to learn about production in our own country – to understand what we’ve got and what we haven’t got – because no-one is doing films here on that scale right now. We’ll also be able to involve the Qataris, not just in the casting, but we’re also doing internships behind the scenes, and all of that gives us knowledge that we can grow upon.

And beyond that, we realise that it’s not just about filming in deserts because we’re very aware that unless you’re making a desert epic, we don’t have the infrastructure yet. So the next step is to start thinking about building infrastructure and exactly what kind of facilities we need.