Doha: The New Movie Mecca

Is the Doha Tribeca Film Festival Qatar’s latest play for a place on the culture map?

Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani of Qatar is a can-do fella. During a bloodless coup in 1995, he wrestled power from his father, who had been siphoning money and spurning modernization. With profits from oil and natural gas, the young emir transformed this desolate spit of Persian Gulf real estate into one of the richest countries on Earth. He has grand ambitions.

The Aspire Zone, with its Olympic-size stadium, an aquatic center, and the world’s largest indoor sports arena, sits baking on the edge of town. Education City is a dizzying complex of half a dozen satellite campuses of American universities—among them Georgetown, Texas A&M, and Cornell. The Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I. M. Pei, sits on a purpose-built island just offshore. Dr. Seussian skyscrapers in varying stages of completion line Doha Bay, and ubiquitous billboards urge the locals to “Support the Bid” that recently landed Qatar the 2022 World Cup. The capital city of Doha is making a play for the world stage.

Those aspirations were advanced considerably a few years ago after the emir’s daughter Sheikha Al Mayassa did a stint as an intern at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. She went home with an idea, and the Doha Tribeca Film Festival was born. After two years, the festival, held each October, still leans heavily upon the cachet of Robert De Niro, a Tribeca co-founder, and his posse of power players. The hope is to create an international festival with a distinctly Arab influence. Given how the Tribeca festival began—as a neighborhood response to the attacks of September 11—the Doha festival has a subtle resonance beyond mere film-going.

Last October, I found myself at Katara, a complex that includes the Opera House, a 2,500-seat outdoor cinema, and scores of ancillary buildings, all of it assembled, in Doha style, from scratch in six months to support the festival. Opening night: Searchlights beam into the black desert sky. Cameras click on an embarrassingly long red carpet. A fleet of Jaguars hum, waiting by the curb. The film on tap this evening is an earnest epic centered on the struggle for Algerian independence. Fifty-one feature-length films will be screened over the next five days. Sitting in the ornately antiqued spanking-new Opera House, watching the crowd meander into the hall—men dressed in flowing white thobes, red-checked ghutras covering their heads; women following behind, clad in black abayas and hijabs, whispering to each other, texting on their cell phones all the while—I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible to quickly create a film-going culture large enough to support such a grand undertaking.

Behind the scenes, Hollywood elites gently guide industry neophytes toward an international standard while wrestling with a culture they’re trying to comprehend. It can leave the most hardened showbiz insider scratching his head. One bemused Tribeca honcho confides, “It’s a bit like we’re building the plane while we’re in the air.”

The same might be said for Doha itself. Virtually everything is so new, so unfinished, that no one I encounter seems to know where anything is. Anything. Ever. It’s not surprising, given that only one in six of the 1.7 million residents is a Qatari national, with most outsiders having arrived during the past few years. Yet there’s an earnestness about Doha—both the festival and the city—an absence of the standard-issue cynicism that goes hand in hand with the movie business in America and so much of Western culture. And there’s no denying the simple thrill of being somewhere that still feels so far from home, among people who are trying to create something where only very recently there was, almost literally, nothing.

One afternoon I slip away from the screening of a half-dozen somber short films and make my way through one of the city’s cavernous shopping malls, past the French hypermarket, Carrefour, and the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, around the ice-skating rink, and out onto the street. The sun is quitting for the day without much drama. The desert heat hangs, but there’s the beginning of a breeze off the bay. The lights of perfume-bottle-shaped skyscrapers start to cut into the rapidly darkening sky. No one is walking on the street. The longer I’m here, the harder it is to tell if there’s a master plan of great foresight at work in Qatar, or if it’s all just a well-funded whim. The festival they’re creating is first-rate, but Doha’s greatest production may be itself, and the question that remains to be answered, out here in the desert sun, is whether they’re producing Lawrence of Arabia, or Ishtar.