Film buff: Director of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival Amanda Palmer at the 2010 Doha Tribeca Film Festival.
ANDREW H. WALKER \ GETTY IMAGES FOR DTFF
Amanda Palmer is keeping me waiting. Again.
I can understand her cancelling our appointment at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival; as festival director, she was in constant demand. Now in its third year, the DTFF is the main cinematic event in Qatar, placing Palmer at the forefront of the burgeoning film industry in that small but wealthy nation-state, east of Saudi Arabia.
She’s an unlikely authority figure for this part of the world – a blonde, non-Muslim woman from Sydney – but she takes on the role with assurance. Still, Doha was months ago. Now I’m in the waiting room of the Greenwich Hotel, a classy New York establishment owned by Robert de Niro, and she’s still proving elusive. When we finally sit down, she apologises gracefully. She still has a well-educated Australian accent, even after all these years away. She is petite, friendly, pretty enough to be in the movies. And she’s about to provide some clues as to why I was kept waiting.
After the introductions, I decide to get the simple questions out of the way. For starters, how old is she?
“I knew you were going to ask this question,” she says laughing. “Magazines love saying the age, don’t they? I don’t understand why. You can tell them, ‘She has no problems with people knowing her age, but she finds it odd that people ask’. It’s a weird position to me.
“My work has taken me all around the world, and I have to say that sometimes, the worst thing you can do is tell them how old you are. Culturally it means so much for a woman. My age means so many things in different countries. So I’ve gotten good at lying.”
Exactly how she lies about her age is anyone’s guess. She looks about 27, but she has achieved enough for someone 20 years older.
“It’s a very disempowering thing to say that some points in your life are meant to be defined according to a number,” she continues. “You can say I’m 45 if you like. It doesn’t matter.” Except that nobody will believe it.
Among many cultures, perhaps the concern is that, at 37, she’s still unmarried. If she has a love life, she keeps it private. Living in Qatar, where it’s illegal to show signs of physical affection, the dating game could be tricky.
Of course, it’s arguable what counts as “signs of physical affection”, and the authorities seem to relax their definition during the film festival, as they host hundreds of visiting movie people.
Palmer was always a film buff, but her tastes were less highbrow than other future film-festival directors. She was raised on Elvis Presley movies on television, especially after his death in 1977. Very popular, of course, but not exactly critics’ favourites.
“My mother, unfortunately, was totally in love with Elvis at the time. It was always a weekend homage. I became very familiar with the Elvis catalogue.”
On one birthday, she was even given a boxed set of Elvis flicks on Betamax. (Her favourite? “My dad wanted it to be King Creole, but I liked Kissin’ Cousins.”)
Not only did the king of rock’n’roll make her a film buff, but he inspired her initial career plans. “I was really caught up on musicals. As a result, I studied the arts. I was going to be a singer-dancer-actress. That was it.”
Still, she was a diligent student, mainly at her parents’ insistence. “I remember my father saying, ‘You can do all this, but I need you to have a back-up plan’.” Her choice of a “real job” was journalism, as it was “a way to tell my own stories, in my own voice”.
Though she studied theatre on the side, she majored in journalism, where she found new goals.
“My sister was born with cerebral palsy. People like her were not represented in the mainstream media. I was constantly reminded that people like me had access to media, people interested in the things I had to say. I had to speak for my sister, who had no access. I thought, ‘If I’m going to be a journalist, I want to be a journalist who’s committed to storytelling, to authentic voices, to empowering people’. That was important to me.”
Turning heads: Kevin Spacey (right) is among the big names Palmer has lured in.
Palmer became a reporter for Channel Seven’s current-affairs show Eleven AM, then moved to London. In 2006, she began working for the new English-language channel of the Doha-based Al Jazeera television broadcaster. Here she created the current affairs series 48, in which each episode chronicled 48 hours in the life of a different city, “everywhere from Bosnia to Chad”. It didn’t always please the authorities.
“I wrote and produced all these stories,” she says. “Just me, a camera and a researcher. The researcher would usually stay in the office, and we had to be low-profile because we were shooting on the run. I deliberately chose those places; our news editor didn’t send me there. I didn’t go and deal with journalists in each country – through social networking, through ringing up universities, we’d get a good representation of that society. We’d get young people that could help us with stories that weren’t being told in mainstream media.”
As Palmer continues, her assistant interrupts us. We’ve been talking for almost 15 minutes, and we have one minute left before her next appointment.
“We haven’t even started talking about the film festival,” Palmer complains. She is very generous in conversation; no wonder I’d been kept waiting before. She apologises to her assistant: she’ll be running late.
Nonetheless, she fast-forwards to the movies. “I wanted to do an international film show,” she recalls. “I was very aware of films that were being made that were not getting audiences.”
This led to Al Jazeera's The Fabulous Picture Show, in which she talked movies with filmmakers, mostly local artisans. Her viewers included Sheikha al-Mayassa, daughter of Qatar's Emil, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, and a renowned champion of the arts. To her, Palmer seemed like an ideal person to help inject life into the film industry.
“I had so many good connections with Middle Eastern filmmakers at that time,” says Palmer. “Obviously, I’m not an Arab, but I’d lived in the Arab world long enough to understand both worlds. So I thought, with some of the people around me, we could really start something exciting.
“That was the Doha Film Institute, which is the all-encompassing film arm of Qatar. All things film are now coming out of the DFI. The festival is one of our arms, along with film financing, year-round education, year-round financing.”
Her inspiration might be obvious: the Australian Film Institute and other state-based organisations. But Australia’s cash-strapped bodies don’t have oil sheikhs behind them.
So far, the DFI’s major project is Black Gold, which will premiere at this year’s DTFF. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, with an international cast including Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto, it’s a film that makes Palmer very excited.
“We mobilised the entire country behind that. Never before had a one-month major shoot happened in Qatar before. It’s not easy.”
Black Gold – no relation to an upcoming Nigerian film with the same title, also featuring Hollywood stars – is about a young Arab prince at the dawn of the oil boom, torn between allegiance to his old-fashioned father and modern, progressive father-in-law.
“I don’t expect to see a dry eye in the place,” says Palmer, “because I think this film means so much to Qatar. How do you balance tradition with modernity? It poses some very relevant questions, particularly to the Gulf right now. They’re deeply entrenched in their culture and tradition.”
It’s not a criticism: “It’s partly why I love living here.”
Entering a partnership with New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, the first DTFF was held in 2009. It wasn’t the first film festival in the Middle East (Dubai began its in 2004, Abu Dhabi in 2007) but, on the eve of the third festival, it is already turning heads. Last year, it attracted the likes of de Niro, Kevin Spacey, Salma Hayak and the cream of Middle Eastern and North African talent.
For a nation at the tip of Saudi Arabia, it might seem like an unusual event, but Qatar has gradually become one of the Middle East’s more progressive nations, even preparing to host the 2022 football World Cup.
A fast-growing nation where 1.7 million residents (out of two million) are foreigners who mostly arrived in the past five years, it could not remain closed forever.
The more relaxed atmosphere has allowed some edgy films onto the DTFF program, tackling taboo subjects. “We didn’t censor ourselves,” says Palmer, “and we’re bringing a bunch of filmmakers, who are really formidable storytellers, into this part of the world.”
The program has included many international films but the focus is on Middle Eastern films.
“I can assure you that no American distributor is going to a filmmaker in the Middle East and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to take your film to a festival in New York and help you find an audience and a sales agent’.
“This cultural partnership has given us a guaranteed conduit to do that. It’s important because people want to hear stories from authentic people in the Middle East.”
Arab cinema has few more enthusiastic champions. “It’s about sustainable film financing,” she explains. “Just signing cheques just doesn’t get good films made.
“I don’t sit there and think that I’m hugely magnanimous, ‘giving back’. I’ve learnt enormous amounts about the tradition and the culture, and I think it’s been transformative. It definitely is an exchange.”
If this all works out, please remember: it might never have happened if not for Elvis.