DOHA, Qatar — Once a week, Amina al Bloshi attends Qatar's first film-making club at the Doha Youth Center. There, she says, she finds a voice she doesn't usually have in this conservative society — through film making.
“I have a lot of things in my heart and I want to transfer it to others,” says the 19-year-old surrounded by her film making peers. They are the first shoots in what is becoming a grassroots film making community here.
Unlike neighboring emirates in the Gulf, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Qatar is trailing behind in the culture stakes and is virtually devoid of a film culture or industry.
Now it's playing catch up, in a big way. This year, New York's Tribeca Film Festival established its first international venue here, drawn as much by Qatar's deep pockets as its underdeveloped film industry.
“One of the goals of the festival is to really build a film community in Doha,” says Maggie Kim, managing director of the festival, which opens in Doha this weekend. “I think it exists in Doha but it really just needed to be flushed out.”
Founded by Robert De Niro in the wake of 9/11, the Tribeca Film Festival aimed to revitalize a devastated downtown Manhattan. Following seven extremely successful years, the festival is expanding its mission, to try and narrow the gap that has widened between the Arab world and the West since 9/11.
The new mandate is clear in the Doha Tribeca Film Festival's selection this year, where one third of the films are from the Arab world. Palestinian film maker Elia Suleiman's latest feature “The Time That Remains,” screens along with work presented at the festival from Western heavyweights like The Coen Brothers and Steven Soderbergh. The idea is to create a two-way flow between Doha and New York, exposing the Middle East to more world cinema and bringing Arab film making to the attention of U.S. producers.
But the festival goes beyond film projection. It also seeks to kick-start film making locally, through training initiatives. For three months, the festival has been running scriptwriting, directing, animation and acting workshops, taught by renowned Palestinian film maker Scantar Copti.
“I think [Copti] has done really well here. I mean it's hard to get people out doing things because it's so insular,” says Sophia Al Maria, one of the Qatari film makers to who took a TriBeCa workshop. Now she wants to make films that challenge the Western stereotypes of the region.
“Movies like “Syriana,” this is the only image of the Gulf — like wild rich desert, but I think there are a lot of stories that need to be told on a larger scale,” she says.
One such story is of Qatar's enormous drag racing subculture among young men here. But Al Maria's version will have a twist: “In my fantasy world there are totally girls who cross-dress and go and beat the boys at racing,” she says.
But amid all the activity, some people worry that Doha's nascent film industry could be too dependent on foreign institutions like the Tribeca Film Festival to survive on its own, over the long run.
“I think sustainability is certainly a problem with all these importation processes. You can import a film festival but you can't import film culture.” says Hamid Naficy a professor of communication at Northwestern University in Qatar, itself a cultural import from Chicago.
“To have a film culture, you need to nurture and a steady nursing of the process,” he said.
The government of Qatar says that's exactly what it has in mind.
“This is a very encouraging start and it enhances our belief that getting the foreign experience and know-how to come to our country is going to help our people to flourish and express their talents,” said Qatari Minister of Culture, Art and Heritage, His Excellency Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al Kuwari.
But facilitating the growth of a domestic film industry requires more than money, it requires freedom of expression and criticism, something that is rare in Qatar where conservative values and a strong state keep public discourse on a short leash.
Still, things are beginning to look better for Qatar's domestic film makers. The Ministry of Culture just announced it is bankrolling the first feature film produced entirely in Qatar, scheduled to start next year — exciting news for aspiring film makers like Amina Al Bloshi.
“I want to really be a film maker,” she says with a smile. “Qatar needs a voicebox and the people who live in Qatar need someone to stand by them, to transfer their voices to others.”
The Doha Tribeca Film Festival runs in Doha, Qatar from Oct. 29 until Nov. 1