I didn’t arrive in Doha yesterday in time for the inauguration of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival at I M Pei’s wonderful Museum of Islamic Art, which looks out over the Doha Sea at one end of the Corniche. So I missed seeing Martin Scorsese, Jeff Koons and Robert de Niro, among others, treading the red carpet ahead of a screening of Mira Nair’s film Amelia, which stars Hilary Swank as the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.
I missed the festival after-party at the Four Seasons, too, having to make do instead with cocktails in the lounge of my hotel. (The hotel is the most easterly outpost of a chain of boutique hotels, and is blandly luxurious, in the style of such establishments the world over. Its lounge appears to be the destination of choice for the gilded youth of Doha, who smoke and drank heroically — the drinking and the smoking surprised me — and danced to a set by an expensively imported French DJ.)
I awoke this morning to discover that I’m staying in the middle of a vast building site. Towers of varying heights, some of them vertiginously tall, are sprouting wherever one looks. Doha, it seems, is a kind of dusty tabula rasa on which a 21st-century city is being built in staggeringly short order. Regular visitors tell me the city is unrecognisable from as little as five years ago.
Qatar, and Doha in particular, is currently in a frenzy of self-assertion — it’s the sort of place where strangers tell you, proudly and unbidden, that GDP grew by 11 per cent last year. As well as hosting the film festival, Doha is currently the venue for a high-profile women’s tennis event, and in a couple of weeks’ time will welcome the national football teams of England and Brazil for a friendly match. Indeed, so confident is this tiny emirate that it’s bidding to host the 2022 World Cup — as giant billboards throughout the city remind you.
And shortly before the festival opened, it was announced that the emir’s daughter, who, like many of her counterparts in other Gulf states, is an enthusiastic and generous patron of the arts, was talking to the Palace of Versailles about co-funding an exhibition in Doha of the work of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. (The past, meanwhile — that is, the prehistoric era before the discovery of petroleum in Qatar in 1939 — exists here only in facsimile. This evening, I was taken to the Souk Waqif, an architecturally faithful reconstruction of the original souk that the government tore down some years ago.)
The highlight of the festival this afternoon was a screening of Michael Moore’s documentary Capitalism: a Love Story. I’ve often thought that Moore’s work combines demagoguery and sentimentalism in a distinctively indigestible way, but this film is different. Sure, he does his ordinary-schlub-speaking-truth-to-power schtick, but his evisceration of the behaviour of the custodians of US capitalism, on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill, is extraordinarily powerful — on account of its almost guileless quality of moral censure and disapproval. Think of it as an extended howl of what the American philosopher Michael Sandel calls “bailout outrage”.
That’s it for now. I’m off in a moment to an outdoor, midnight screening at the Museum of Islamic Art of Steven Soderbergh’s new film The Informant. More on that tomorrow.
UPDATE: Frustratingly, I got to the museum just now, only to be told that the Soderbergh screening had been cancelled “on the order of the authorities”. Mysterious. I’ll try to find out why.