The youngest of the Middle Eastern movie festivals at age three, the Doha Tribeca Film Festival is not just keen, but near desperate to win the race with the older festivals at Dubai (whose eighth edition will roll in December) and Abu Dhabi (that ended its fifth chapter just the other day).
Lining up an impressive list of celebrities from several countries (Malaysian star Michelle Yeoh, French actor Vincent Cassel, Britain’s David Thewlis, Egyptian legend Omar Sharif and other Middle Eastern actors, apart from renowned helmers like Luc Bison, Jean Jacques Annaud, Morgan Spurlock and Pawlikowski will be attending the Festival), the Festival opened with celebrated Annaud’s (His Majesty Minor, Enemy at the Gates, Two Brothers) $55-million Black Gold on Tuesday.
With a cast drawn from many countries – French Algerian Tahar Rahim (The Prophet), India’s Frieda Pinto (Trishna, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger), Spain’s footballer-turned actor Antonia Banderas (recently seen in Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In), British actor Mark Strong, Qatari singer Fahad al-Kubaisi (who has rendered a song) --Black Gold was jointly produced by Quinta Communications and Festival organiser Doha Film Institute in its first ever international venture of this kind. It will be distributed by Warner Brothers and Universal Pictures.
However, this global feel that Annaud and perhaps the Institute wanted to give may well have been the film’s undoing. Shown to the media on Tuesday morning ahead of its evening star-sprinkled gala, Black Gold often appeared like a rerun of Lawrence of Arabia with Banderas looking like Peter O’Toole. But Annaud is no David Lean, and Banderas does not match quite up to O’Toole.
What is more, it was not always convincing to see actors from outside the Middle East play Arabs. As much as Anthony Quinn essaying a Mexican in Lawrence of Arabia seemed unconvincing, Strong as Emir Amar did not fit in. It was not very different for Pinto, who portrays Princes Lallah. She came in for criticism earlier when she became a Palestinian girl in Miral, and Pinto needs to work hard on her expressiveness and choose her parts with greater care.
The movie sees Banderas as Nessib, one of the two rival emirs, and Strong as his opposing counterpart. While Nessib favours prosperity for his people through black gold, as oil was then known, (Must I let my impoverished people die of cholera and the women in childbirth, he quips), Amar is destructively conservative, fearing that the new wealth could radically change his society, even beyond recognition. But his son, Auda (Tahar Rahim), and half-brother, Dr Ali (Riz Ahmed), ultimately fulfil Nessib’s dream of a modern community.
Based on a book, The Great Thirst (1957) by Hans Ruesch, the film was shot in Tunisia (dangerously so during the recent Jasmine Revolution), and in Qatar (where the battle scenes were set in the desert dunes).