Behind its glitzy exterior, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF) is providing a genuine platform for Arab film-makers and helping to create a local industry.

The third Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which wrapped this weekend, managed to attract a starry guest list, not to mention hosting a steady stream of glamorous parties and high profile screenings, masterclasses and Q&As.

But there is more to Doha than its glitzy facade.

Thanks to the year round activities of the Doha Film Institute (formed in May 2010), this is now a festival with a clear mission to build a sustainable local film industry and provide a platform for emerging Arab film-makers.

A mission which, if this year’s edition was anything to go by, is well under way.

“We will never be Cannes, but if we have a specifity, then we will continue to attract people in the industry. And our specifity is on Arab films,” said Lebanese film-maker and festival programmer Chadi Zeneddine, who is currently developing two film projects of his own, a fairytale feature for Disney called Last Of The Storytellers and a coming of age story which he hopes to shoot in 2013.  

“The Arab world needs to create a hub where it can film in a comfort zone. We are here to do that and to give Arab film-makers a platform,” adds Zeneddine, who neverthless voiced his frustration at the lack of co-operation between the Arab states adding that next year he would “like to see countries being more supportive of each other and discovering the talent of their neighbours.”

Certainly, there was a sense that the ongoing rivalry between the three big Middle East festivals - Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha - is only getting fiercer.

When it comes to prize money, Dubai’s Muhr Awards, for shorts, documentaries and feature films, offer $600,000, whilst Doha’s total awards pot for its Arab Film Competition currently $335,000, with the two main awards, for best Arab narrative feature and documentary, each carrying $100,000 prizes. Abu Dhabi offers a total of $1m across its four competition sections, but this includes international categories as well. All three festivals are working hard to nurture homegrown talent and establish local film-making hubs through their own initiatives, funds and markets.

A tangible example of the DTFF’s increased focus on homegrown talent is the decision to extend the Arab Film Competition to include 14 features, split into narrative feature and documentary sections. One encouraging statistic was that 40% of the films in the Arab competition were made by women film-makers, a theme which was carried across the festival, with a panel entitled She Is Film featuring Nadine Labacki and Jasmila Zbanic.

As well as a general focus on Arab film-making, the DFI is taking increasing steps to nurture Qatari film-makers, as was evident through its new Made In Qatar section, which featured 16 short films made by Qatari residents, both professional film-makers and local amateurs.

The DFI also appears to be making serious waves through its education programme headed up by Palestinian film-maker Scandar Copti, whose feature Ajami was nominated for the foreign language Oscar in 2009.

The year round programme of workshops (some of which take place in schools) is open to budding Qatari film-makers of all ages (students currently range from 7-50) and is free, thanks to DFI funding. “It’s very important to start them young, because this is how you create a culture,” says Copti, who has based himself in Qatar, and who created a special interactive installation for this year’s festival. The Harrer Harrer installation is made up of 48 short films based around the Arab Spring and the theme of liberation. The short films came out of a series of workshops across the Arab world, with 16 participants working on every aspect of the film-making process to produce the finished shorts.

So does Copti believe that the recent Arab Spring and the new found freedom that has come with it, will lead to a flowering of Arab cinema? “The world is now interested in Arab films. We are going to witness a baby boom first and then it will filter itself,” says Copti.

“[The Arab Spring] provides the ability for people to make films about a whole range of subjects and themes that they weren’t able to talk about before,” adds Fortissimo Films’ chairman Michael Werner, who was at the festival to take part in the Doha Projects initiatives – where DFI grantees were given the chance to pitch their projects to international executives. “Although film-makers must be cognisant of the fact that there is so much coverage in the newspapers that audiences may not want too many films on the subject,” he adds.

Fortissimo is an example of an international company consciously choosing to invest time and money in the region. It recently signed a multi picture deal with Abu Dhabi’s Imagenation to handle its Arab content features around the world and last year picked up Cairo 678 out of Dubai, as well as being in negotiations on a film out of the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival.  

“We are out here meeting with producers, film-makers. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm and increasing access to resources out here. And the films are becoming more commercial. As a company we are making a significant commitment to the region,” adds Werner.

US companies are also choosing to forge links with the DFI. Miramax launched its new Middle East Facebook app at the festival as well as announcing an internship programme which enables a Qatari university student to do an eight week placement in its Los Angeles or London office. Then there is the ongoing association with the Tribeca Film Festival.

“It’s tough not to get incredibly optimistic about the future of this part of the world. We are big believers in the potential of these markets – not only for digital distribution, but as a place for emerging filmmakers, “ said Miramax CEO Mike Lang.

The festival is just one aspect of the DFI’s year round activities. Since it launched the DFI has provided a 30% equity investment in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s $55m Black Gold and recently boarded another international co-production, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, starring Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson. The DFI has also handed out grants to 25 projects in development from film-makers in the Middle East and North Africa, including Algerian auteur Merzak Allouache’s Normal, which won the Best Arab Narrative Feature at this year’s festival. The next wave of grantees are expected to be announced shortly.

During the festival the DFI laid out to producers its new guidelines for funding (it will not reveal how big its pot is), which have been brought in line with the Hollywood system and require a visible sign of equity. Sales estimates, even if guaranteed, will not be accepted, and there will be no cap on the potential investment by the DFI. It also laid out that the involvement of Qataris in the production was critical as the fund is there to enhance local production.

One producer, who wished not to be named, said there was concern that “the DFI were now looking at North America to advise them, even though the films that will be funded will have Arab content and will be more easily marketable in Europe.” Indeed, Black Gold has yet to secure North American distribution, despite the involvement of Warner Bros and Unverisal in distributing worldwide.

Back to the festival and inevtiably, given that it is still early days, there were teething problems. The DFI’s flagship film Black Gold received lukewarm reviews with many feeling that, with its international cast and French director, it did not reflect “Arab film-making”. And an incident involving Egyptian actor Omar Sharif allegedly lashing out at a female fan wanting a picture was another unfortunate talking point, although cynically, it generated some extra publicity for the festival.

Still, there was a tangible excitement and buzz, not just generated by the swanky parties but also by support of local talents.