As this year’s Doha Tribeca Film Festival gets underway, Geoffrey Macnab explores the strategy of the Doha Film Institute and looks at its impact on film-making in the region.

The financial muscle of Qatar’s Doha Film Institute (DFI) was underlined last year when, just a few months after it was officially launched in Cannes in May 2010, the DFI provided a 30% equity investment in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s $55m desert epic Black Gold.  

The film, which will open the third Doha Tribeca Film Festival (October 25 -29), has a huge symbolic importance for the DFI.

“I use Black Gold as a case-study example of how to build a film industry,” says Amanda Palmer, executive director of the DFI. “Everything that it took to be part of Black Gold on multiple tiers has enormous amount of meaning for every facet of what we do at DFI.”

‘We are in this industry really to extract knowledge and create long-term international relationships’

Amanda Palmer, Doha Film Institute

The DFI was keen its first investment in a major international project would be high-profile and a potential box-office success that might help the Qataris in their bid to “create sustainable film financing”. Equally important was the subject matter. This is an Arab story, a movie about the Arabian Peninsula that, in producer Tarak Ben Ammar’s words, “takes it on from Lawrence Of Arabia”.

The casting of Tahar Rahim, the French-born actor of Algerian heritage, who came to prominence in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, was a further attraction. As Palmer puts it: “This is the first time Arab audiences will see him playing a key Arab part that speaks to their region.”

In return for its investment, the DFI was able to give Qatari talent work on a major production. Battle scenes involving small armies of technicians and extras were shot on the Qatar Peninsula. Renowned local singer Fahad Al Kubaisi was recruited to perform the movie’s opening track.

Now, the DFI’s aim is to invest in further international projects on a similar scale.

The state-backed Institute has a very broad mandate. In effect, its goal is to kick-start an entire film culture and industry in the country that will be holding the football World Cup finals in 2022. Production is just one part of an equation that also includes financing, education and the running of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, a partnership with New York’s Tribeca Enterprises. 

“We are in this industry really to extract knowledge and create long-term international relationships. If Qatar wants to build a film industry, it can’t do it in isolation. It has to work on a regional collaboration formula and also to have very strong international partnerships,” Palmer suggests. “Part of our mandate is to create a film culture and give people a sense of ownership over this creative industry.”

Drawing talent to the region

As well as reaching out to renowned producers such as Quinta Communications’ Ben Ammar, the DFI has brought in talent on many levels. The festival recently appointed the highly respected Ludmilla Cvikova (who spent over a decade programming for the International Film Festival Rotterdam) as its head of international programming. Ellis Driessen, the former Fortissimo executive who stood down last year as head of the Dutch film industry platform the Holland Film Meeting, is Doha’s industry development consultant.

With “a deficit of producers in the Arab world,” as Palmer puts it, the DFI sees collaboration with international partners as vital to stimulating local production.

The festival has very close links with its partners at Tribeca in New York. “Part of our mandate is to help Arab film-makers find audiences,” Palmer says. “It is great to have somebody like [Tribeca director] Geoff Gilmore speaking the language of our mandate in New York, helping us find new audiences for authentic Arab films.”

The DFI has also given grants to 25 projects in development from film-makers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). A further 25 MENA projects from Arab storytellers are expected to be announced at this year’s festival.

Beneficiaries in the first round include a host of newcomers as well as established film-makers, such as Algerian auteur Merzak Allouache for post-production on his Arab Spring-themed Normal, and Egyptian director Khaled El Hagar for post work on Lust (El Shooq), which went on to win the top prize at the Cairo International Film Festival at the end of last year. Both are now screening in the Arab Film Competition at Doha.

Palmer won’t give precise details about just how deep the DFI’s pockets are. It has had (in Palmer’s words) “enormous support from the [Qatar] government in its start-up years”. But there is no doubt the DFI has real economic power.  In theory, the DFI could comfortably fully fund projects from local film-makers. In practice, it is declining to do this on the basis these film-makers need to know how to knit co-productions together and access financing from multiple sources.

“We choose the model of being a co-producer and co-financier so we can help our film-makers and producers find other strong partners,” says Palmer.

The DFI will usually provide between 30% and 50% of a project’s budget.

Films the DFI has supported that have already made waves on the international festival circuit include Mahmoud Kaabour’s Grandma, A Thousand Times, a documentary about an 83-year-old Beirut grandmother and matriarch. After its premiere in Doha last year, it went on to win plaudits and prizes at festivals from Carthage to Tribeca, and Rotterdam To London. It is being sold internationally by Taskovski Films.

This year’s Arab Film Competition at the festival features eight world premieres, including Allouache’s Normal, Jean-Claude Codsi’s Lebanon-France-Qatar co-production A Man Of Honor, and Laila Hotait Salas’ documentary Crayons Of Askalan, a Lebanon-Spain co-production.

The competition has been expanded to include different strands for narrative and documentary films, with a set of new awards on offer including best Arab narrative feature, director, performance, documentary and documentary director. It also has two audience awards — for best narrative and documentary features — worth $100,000.

Another of Palmer’s commitments is to support work by women film-makers. Guests at this year’s festival will include Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki, whose new feature Where Do We Go Now? — which received backing from the DFI — won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Also attending will be Yasemin Samdereli, director of the comedy Almanya, which she co-wrote with her sister Nesrin, who will also be in Doha.

The DFI already has half an eye on the football World Cup, which will make Qatar the centre of global attention in 2022. In the countdown to that event, Qatar is investing heavily in its media infrastructure. The film sector is likely to benefit as Qatari organisations continue to strategically invest in the international film industry. Late last year, Qatar Holdings, which invests for the Qatari royal family, was a major part of the consortium that bought the Miramax Films name and library from Disney.

Not every new Qatar film initiative goes through the DFI. “The national strategy for the expansion of this business [film] has to be much bigger than one organisation,” Palmer says.

However, it is clear it is the DFI pulling the levers as the Qatari government’s hugely ambitious plans for creating a fully fledged Arab film industry pick up steam.