Doha Tribeca shows confidence with a twinkle

The Qatari capital's film festival has matured admirably in its second year, displaying an impressive sure touch and sense of fun.

All over Doha giant photographs of film stars adorned walls and billboards to announce the arrival of the second Doha Tribeca Film Festival. The shots of mostly Arab stars were taken by the photographer Brigitte Lacombe for her I Am Film exhibition, which was on at the just-opened Katara village, the new home of the film festival.

On the few billboards that were not promoting the film festival appeared the 2022 World Cup bid slogan, "Expect amazing". It's a statement that could be applied to a film festival that has a youthful, fun atmosphere and a corresponding buzz.

The first night saw the opening of the Katara village, home to the opera house and a fabulous temporary open-air cinema on the banks of the Gulf. I elected to watch Rachid Bouchareb's Outside the Law under the stars.

The atmosphere was electric and there was already a feeling in the air that the festival had overcome the teething problems of its inaugural year. The sense of newness and fun continued at the party on Pearl Island, a new artificial island that has become a popular residential spot.

This year the festival moved its dates to bring it closer to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, a smart move, given the number of stars who decided to stay on after ADFF and make the short flight west. The downside for visitors to both festivals is that there is some overlap in the programmes.

Most impressive in Doha, perhaps, was the subsidiary programme: the talks, workshops and showcasing of films being made by the Doha Film Institute, an umbrella body created last year to oversee all of Qatar's various film initiatives and whose production arm has made a series of one-minute and 10-minute films that hint at a future where the directing and acting stars will be home-grown.

The programme reflects this with an emphasis on the Arab narrative competition. There were a few world premieres in this section, one of which, Hawi, won the top prize at the festival for Best Arab Narrative Film. The low-budget production by the Egyptian director Ibrahim el Batout is a portrait of modern-day Alexandria shot with nods to Jean-Luc Godard. It's avant-garde cinema with an Arabic flavour and it was this desire to experiment that no doubt caught the eye of the jury.

The Lebanese-born Josef Fares won the prize for best Arabic filmmaker for Balls, his tale of Middle East emigrants living in Sweden. The jury members said that his light-hearted screenplay particularly took them in.

Indeed, comedy was being pushed as a genre by the festival organisers. I chaired a discussion on whether comedy could help in breaking down barriers; the panel included the Egyptian stand-up comedian Ahmed Ahmed, whose documentary Just Like Us, on his experiences performing in the Arab world, had its Middle East premiere, as well as Sameh Zoabi, the director of Man Without a Cell Phone, set in a Palestinian village in Israel, Ian Powers, the Irish director of The Runway, and the excellent New Zealand comedian and actor Taika Waititi. There was a serious discussion on the political aspects of filmmaking that saw the panel agree that comedy might be the best way to cut through conventions and subvert taboos.

Of course, with the festival placing an emphasis on fun, the panel came after a night of stand-up comedy at a hotel club, which looked as though it had been designed by the set-directors of Miami Vice.

The Doha Talks were a huge success and the Tribeca film festival founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal weighed in by discussing the evolution of the Meet the Parents franchise, with the forthcoming sequel about to hit our screens. Mira Nair, whose film Amelia opened the inaugural festival last year, returned to discuss Maisha, her screen lab project in Uganda. Lacombe discussed her photographs and the Franco-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb (Outside the Law) gave a masterclass.

The event of the festival was the TEDxDoha, a night of talks made by luminaries which was part of the TED foundation's programme to enable organisations around the world to hold independently organised TED events. There was an eclectic mix of speakers, including the fashion designer Reem Acra, Matt Aiken - whose company Weta Digital is behind many of the special effects in Peter Jackson's films - the musician Nitin Sawhney, who the night before had stunned the crowd in the open air-cinema with his brilliant sound accompaniment to A Throw of the Dice, and turning up again were the funny men Ahmed Ahmed and Taika Waititi. It was like attending a one-night film school.

Just like the ADFF, the DTFF has truly raised its game this year. It's interesting to note that both festivals have improved greatly in a year where they avoided having acting superstars appear as mere adornments; the big-name guests all had films at the festivals, were on the jury or were conducting discussion panels.

One of the big buzz titles was the documentary Grandma, A Thousand Times, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary as well as the Special Jury Mention. The 31-year-old director Mahmoud Kabour's documentary on his Beiruti grandmother is innovative and experimental and is likely to have a healthy festival life after its world premiere here. The short film winner, Sirwar Zirkly's Missing, looked as if it had been made in the 1970s, but had a very modern central tale revolving around a television show aimed at finding missing people.

Another interesting facet of the festival was the introduction of a rating system for films. This positive step to bring the region into line with the rest of the world afforded the festival the opportunity to play more adult fare. One of the events of the festival was the screening of the Bosnian Muslim director Jasmila Zbanic's On the Path. The enthralling tale, about a couple whose relationship deteriorates when the man finds solace and a more traditional lifestyle in a Wahhabi retreat, is a fascinating portrait of the various forces pulling at Muslims in the modern world, especially in the battle between tradition and modernity.

I have never seen a director look more nervous arriving on stage for a post-film question-and-answer session, but Zbanic's apprehension soon gave way to relief as she realised that the film had received a warm reception from a crowd fascinated by the subject matter and story-telling. The discussion produced further fascinating insights into the dilemmas facing Muslims the world over, and amply justified the introduction of a rating system. Without its 18 rating, On the Path would not have been shown.

The closing night's film, The First Grader, by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Film. It is the intriguing true story of an 84-year-old Kenyan whose decision to take advantage of the announcement of free primary school education culminated in a visit to the UN.

Doha has sent out a signal that it wants to be the funkiest film festival of the region, and with Sundance Film Labs taking place in Jordan next week and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival having had its best edition yet this year, it seems there has never been a better time to be a filmmaker in the Middle East.