Consistent with most young festivals, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival has its share of films that have made their way through the festival circuit, with some already in release in the U.S., including “The September Issue,” “An Education,” “Capitalism: A Love Story” and “Bright Star” as well as films still to find a “cinema near you,” like “Racing Dreams” and “South of the Border.” But being that this is a Middle Eastern event, DTFF has particularly focused on Arab work that have screened at some international fests, including Najwa Najjar’s Palestinian-produced “Pomegranates and Myrrh” (which screened at last year’s Dubai fest), a story of newlyweds whose new marriage faces strains after the groom is arrested by the Israelis, and “Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story” by Yousry Nasrallah (Middle Eastern premiere) about a group of women on both ends of the social spectrum in Cairo. The film picked up a prize last summer in Venice.
Also set in the Egyptian capital, Canadian-Arab filmmaker Ruba Nadda’s “Cairo Time,” starring Oscar nominee Patricia Clarkson and veteran Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig (“Syriana”) received a high profile slot at DHFF, closing the event on Sunday. Both Clarkson and Siddig along with Nadda met journalists this weekend to discuss the film, which had its first screening at Doha’s beautiful Museum of Islamic Art on Friday night. Festival guests, including what appeared to be a chunk of Western expats and locals, many in traditional dress, crowded into the theater for the film, which a sign warned was for “18 and over.”
“The film is about the tragedy of restraint,” said Clarkson Saturday afternoon at DTFF’s headquarters at the Four Seasons Hotel along the Persian Gulf in the city center. “It’s a film with a delicate balance.” Tribeca’s Geoff Gilmore offered the film a spot at DTFF (it also played in Pusan in October) after seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival. “Cairo” won TIFF’s Best Canadian Feature prize.
In the story, Clarkson plays Juliette, a happily married woman who travels to Cairo to visit her husband, who works with the U.N. She is met at the airport, however by Tareq (Siddig) a former colleague of her husband’s who tells her that, Mark, her spouse, is detained working at a refugee camp in Gaza. Cairo is featured beautifully in Nadda’s film as a vibrant yet striking metropolis that is alive with energy, chaos, danger and charm. Juliette sets out to explore the city, but is confronted by her own cultural naivite. So she meets up with Tareq who accompanies Juliette around the city. As her husband becomes further delayed, the pair develop a tender affection that is represented subtly throughout the film – a lingering glance, thoughtful gestures, effortless conversation.
“I wanted the story to be minimalist, [and] to show something fleeting,” said Rubba. “I wanted it to be a throwback to old Hollywood. To me, North American romance has become about immediate gratification. I’m a feminist, but to me, there’s a civility that is lacking in North America.”
“I’m a romantic at heart,” said Clarkson, who’s character slowly begins to wear classic dresses that emphasize Juliette’s femininity as the relationship develops. And for his part, the classic is also crucial in Saddig’s portrayal of Tareq.
“My point is that I want to preserve the Arab male that I feel is disappearing. Someone who is openly educated, well-spoken, noble and gentle. I feel the younger generation is either angry or someone who has had a lot of money thrown at him. There’s pressure to either conform to an angry Islamist or an overly Western-cloned materialist.”
“While the film is set in Cairo and filmed by a Canadian-born filmmaker (her mother is from Palestine and her father from Syria) it is a simple story that has international appeal,” said former StudioCanal CEO Frederic Sichler in a panel on international finance later in the day. He praised the film, which he saw for the first time here in Doha, for its accessible story and for not trying to be overtly international like some pan-European productions that try to satisfy cross-border tastes, but end up ‘failing miserably’.” Sichler urged local filmmakers to tell local stories intelligently. “If you tell a great story that is genuine, it will find international appeal,” he said.
On the doc side, director Liz Mermin’s (“The Beauty Academy of Kabul”) “Team Qatar” (Middle Eastern premiere) charmed audiences at its screening on the first full day of the festival. Though unfortunately, this film will probably never have a theatrical release in the U.S., it clearly moved Americans and others in the audience with its lovable teen subjects from Qatar who join the country’s first debate team and work with a charismatic British coach in the lead up to the World Schools Championships in Washington, D.C.
“I was skeptical about this story, but then I met [the coach] and knew there would be a story here,” Mermin said in Doha Friday. “The moment I met them all, I knew there would be a story. All of the kids were different yet charming.”
Filmed primarily as the students were prepping for their trip to the U.S., they visit London and are confronted with a world that was seemingly distant from what they knew growing up. Their coach, Alex, takes them to London’s gay pride parade, and later, they meet an Iraq War protester who is camped adjacent to the British Parliament in a tent. Quite a cultural baptism by fire for a group of kids from a mostly conservative society – some of whom wear traditional Arab clothing.
One girl in the film, a biology student, said she couldn’t understand gay people and why some of the people in the parade were so flamboyant. “It’s like they have an extra X chromosome.” Immediately, she was confronted by Alex who challenged her to use her education to rethink her beliefs. After the screening, she revealed that clearly she had taken his advice.
“The person you saw at the beginning of the film is not the same as the one you saw at the end of the film,” said the girl, now graduated, during a post screening Q&A and still wearing the traditional hijab. Laughing she added, “I know [gay people] are the same as everybody.”