The Arab Spring of pro-democracy uprisings features prominently — both directly and more subtly — in the selections at the third annual Doha Tribeca Film Festival, kicking off in the Qatari capital this week.
The festival, launched in 2009 in the tiny Gulf Arab state, seeks to showcase the work of Arab filmmakers who this year were able to draw on the momentous political changes in their own countries for artistic inspiration.
Highlights include "Rouge Parole," set in the tumult of revolutionary Tunisia, which charts the expulsion of its president and the country’s first steps towards democracy.
Sherif El Bendary’s "On the Road to Downtown," set in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, follows the lives and hopes of six people connected in different ways to the city’s downtown core.
"Our selection of documentaries provides for reflection on political change. But we also offer a number of films that look into private worlds and subtler aspects of the Middle Eastern experience that are not always evident to political observers," said the festival’s Chief Arab Programmer, Hania Mroue.
"The Virgin, the Copts and Me" takes on an otherworldly subject in investigating the appearance of the Virgin Mary to millions of Egyptians via a videotape on which only true believers can see her image.
"This is a very important film for post-revolutionary Egypt, as it sheds light on the Coptic community, which was taboo to do a few years ago," Mroue said.
The Algerian title "Normale" examines what happened in the Algerian street as neighboring countries’ dictators were being toppled.
"The youth in Algeria felt they could now express themselves more freely. The film addresses the revolution in a very subtle way," she said.
Lina Alabed’s "Yearning" focuses on the lives of women in Damascus and their approach to personal freedom in a society dominated by men.
Women are also the focus in two sports documentaries that examine the taboos surrounding women and boxing in Tunisia ("Boxing with Her"), and the life-altering experience of a young women’s basketball team in northern Iraq ("Salaam Dunk").
Other headliners include the world premiere of "Black Gold" with Antonio Banderas, set in the 1930s at the dawn of the oil boom and the first major motion picture shot in Qatar.
Laila Hotait Salas’ "Crayons of Askalan" recreates the powerful story of Palestinian artist Zuhdi al Adawi, imprisoned at the age of 15 in Israel’s notorious Askalan jail.
Qatar launched the film festival as a partnership between the Doha Film Institute and Tribeca Enterprises, which also operates New York’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Created as a way to rejuvenate lower Manhattan after the September 11, 2001 attacks which destroyed the World Trade Center, the Tribeca Film Festival in New York has become a showcase for international films with a political edge.
Organizers said the Doha event aims to do the same, using the festival to shine a spotlight on Arab cinema.
"We don’t want to focus only on the big names, we want to give a space also for new voices, especially from the region," Mroue said.
A scene from "The Virgin, the Copts and Me."