The Doha Tribeca Film Festival offers comedy

The Doha Tribeca Film Festival offers an impressive selection of comedies by Middle Eastern filmmakers

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The second Doha Tribeca Film Festival is offering an impressive selection of comedies by Middle Eastern filmmakers, but the event's executive director says such films are intended to do more than just make audiences laugh.

"Arab filmmakers are using comedy as a device to discuss serious political and social problems that are happening - things people don't want to talk about, but comedy allows them to do it," says Amanda Palmer.

The five-day event, which opened on Tuesday in the Qatari capital and is expected to attract 50,000 visitors, is showing 45 films from 36 counties. This year's festival includes the newly added Arab Film Competition, which will see 10 films compete for a share of the Dh1.5 million prize fund.

Palmer said comedy has "become part of the new wave of Arab filmmaking" and movies such as Man Without a Cell Phone, a drama by the Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi, and documentary Just Like Us, by the US comedian Ahmed Ahmed, are evidence of this.

Zoabi's film is about "twentysomething slackers who find themselves caught between angry parents and suspicious Israelis, when all they really want to do is have fun", while Ahmed's takes the audience from Los Angeles to Dubai (via a host of western and eastern cities) and sees "taboos of culture and geopolitics exploded" by a group of stand-up comedians.

"In our submissions this year we have seen some beautiful comedies, some very quirky ones, like Man Without a Cell Phone," says Palmer. "We are seeing filmmakers using comedy to humanise the Arab world, to humanise Arabs and to encourage universal dialogue on some serious issues."

Palmer said the internationally acclaimed Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman (whose film The Time That Remains screened at DTFF in 2009) helped pioneer the convergence of comedy and politics in Middle Eastern cinema and that last year's break-out hit Amreeka, about a Middle Eastern family living in the suburbs of post-9/11 Chicago, continued the trend.

"The director of that film, Cherien Dabis, said she didn't even realise she had written a comedy until people in the audience laughed," says Palmer.

But Middle Eastern filmmakers are not the only ones attempting to combine humour and political commentary. One of the highlights of this year's DTFF line-up is the British film Made in Dagenham. The comedy-drama tells the true story of a strike over equal pay for women in a 1968 Ford factory.

"[It's] the breeziest film you can imagine about risking everything for a fairer slice of the pie," said The Daily Telegraph's Tim Robey.

The French filmmaker François Ozon has also tried his hand at mixing comedy and politics with his film Potiche, playing at DTFF this year (and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last week). The film sees a bored, apolitical "trophy wife" (played by Catherine Deneuve) who turns her industrialist husband's umbrella factory into a workers paradise. Set in the 1970s, but with a story that is reflected in France's current political struggles, Potiche also stars Gérard Depardieu as an ageing Marxist politician with a broken heart.

But Palmer called the political-comedy theme running through the festival's programme "wonderful serendipity" and insisted it was not intentional.

"The line-up was really chosen on the strength of the films, and it is really wonderful there is a line running through it. What we do at Doha Film Institute and the festival is try to promote people who are telling their own stories."

DTFF opened with the French-Algerian drama, Outside the Law, which deals with the painful aftermath of colonialism in the north African country. The controversial film's screening at Cannes earlier this year was affected by protests, with some condemning it as revisionist and anti-French. Closing the festival will be The First Grader, a heartwarming tale about a former Kenyan freedom fighter who began school life at age 84, directed by the British filmmaker Justin Chadwick.

The Doha Tribeca Film Festival runs until October 30