Palmer leads Doha Tribeca Film Festival

Palmer Leads at the DOHA Tribeca Film FestivalShe launched her career at the Seven Network where she learnt about reporting the hard way: falling from helicopters and writing stories in her spare time. Now, Amanda Palmer is at the forefront of a film resurgence in the Middle East.

It’s the opening night of the inaugural Doha Tribeca Film Festival, 29 October 2009, and the red carpet is flooded with international stars: Robert De Niro, Sir Ben Kingsley, Martin Scorsese and Egyptian actress and singer Youssra. Standing alongside them is UTS communication graduate Amanda Palmer, Executive Director of the Festival.

“This would not happen in many places in the world... actually, it wouldn’t happen anywhere in the world but it happened in Doha,” says Palmer, who is Head of Entertainment at Al Jazeera English.

It’s lunchtime in Qatar, the festival has just wrapped up and, after not eating breakfast and barely sleeping in the past 24 hours, Palmer sounds full of energy.

“I am happy, even though I am exhausted – the festival was such a roaring success,” says the 36-year-old.

Over the four-day program, 25,000 people attended the festival’s free events and more than 10,000 saw one of the 52 screenings of the 30 officiallyselected films.

The event’s success even surprised Palmer, who has been attending film festivals around the world as part of her work as the presenter and producer of The Fabulous Picture Show on Al Jazeera English.

“It’s a film festival that has more substance than an amazing red carpet,” she says.

The original Tribeca Film Festival, which was started by Robert De Niro and his colleagues Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff in New York after September 11, 2001, has lent its hip brand to set Doha’s festival apart from the other Middle Eastern film festivals.

Palmer says she has always been passionate about her work and, after completing the B. Arts in Communication in 1995 at UTS, she worked at the Seven Network in Sydney as a studio reporter. She recounts the tale of her first time in a helicopter while chasing a story for Today Tonight.

“I fell out of the helicopter… the pilot said it [the fall] was an eight out of 10. If I was wearing a skirt it would have been a nine out of 10.”

But her time at Seven didn’t just involve helicopter rides: she spent those formative years honing her research and reporting skills and earning her stripes as a serious journalist. In her spare time, she worked on her own stories for international news agencies and, despite being a studio reporter at the Seven Network in Australia, many of her stories ran on international news channels such as CNN.

While she loved her role at Seven, she claims that leaving it was the best decision she ever made. “The biggest thing I learnt was to leave my comfort zone. Every time I have done that, the opportunities out there always proved to be fruitful.”

Palmer also learnt early in her career to nurture the relationships she had established with others in the field. One of these contacts was Tony Maddox, who was running CNN in London at the time. Palmer knew he wasn’t going to give her a job over the phone, so she packed her bags.

“He wanted to see how ballsy I was. If I would give it all up and take a chance. “I rang him [Tony Maddox] from a pay phone in London and, six weeks later, I was working at CNN.”

Stints on CNN’s Business International and as a co-host on Music Room followed before Palmer decided to move on to the Associated Press Television News network. This, says Palmer, gave her a crash course in world politics and geography. “In the two-and-a-half years I was there I learnt more than in my previous eight or nine years practising journalism.”

Now established as a reputable reporter, she decided it was time to try her hand at something new: producing television shows. She submitted some program ideas to Al Jazeera and one particular show struck a nerve: a culture/ travel series called 48. In August 2005, she was invited to join Al Jazeera English and the show went into production – it was to be one of the key shows to launch the new network.

The success of 48 led to her current role as the presenter and producer of The Fabulous Picture Show and, more recently, to the role of Head of Entertainment at Al Jazeera English. She is now one of the leading cultural commentators and supporters of international and independent filmmakers in the Middle East.

“If you had asked me if you thought I would end up there [at Al Jazeera English], working in Doha, I would have said you are crazy. But it was a fantastic opportunity to produce,” she says.

As The Fabulous Picture Show gained traction, Palmer’s work was recognised by Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al- Thani, now president of Qatar’s Museum Authority. She approached Palmer to help establish a film festival in the region.

“When Her Excellency and I started talking about this possibility, it was always clear that the festival vision was to create an authentic film event that truly serves the community,” says Palmer. “Film is such an amazing equaliser and we felt Tribeca was unique in how it creates an event where filmmakers and film-goers can equally celebrate film.”

Most importantly, says Palmer, the film festival connects at a grass roots level. “Most film festivals are less and less about the audience.”

While the festival runs for only four days, it has also established a year-round film appreciation and education program that allows locals to attend workshops, cinematic series, exchange labs and acting workshops.

Palmer says “people love film, theatre and arts and it is about bringing it to Doha and getting people involved”.

Words: Danika Houghton