The Cairo film festival reaches a historic landmark as its counterparts in cash-rich Gulf states cancel editions or fold up
“Egypt, your Nile has countless graces,” sings the retired general, a lead character in the new Lebanese film, Good Morning, screened this week at the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). The same could be said of the Cairo film festival, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. The oldest festival in the Arab world has trundled along in a graceful manner while many new ones with glitzy existences have been unable to. Held during November 20-29 this year, the long journey of the Cairo film festival shows the significant role of culture in the tottering Arab world.
Deeply influenced by popular Hindi cinema in the last century, Egypt’s film industry is the oldest in the Arab world. “Cinema in the Arab world started in Egypt,” said veteran Egyptian film critic Salah Hashem. “It is logical that Egypt continues to show it has a leading role in culture in the region,” added the Paris-based Hashem, a member of the Camera d’Or jury at the Cannes festival in 1989. At this year’s edition, the Cairo festival stressed on that role by shaking up its leadership and strengthening its programming.
The changes at the top came at an important moment for Cairo festival. The Dubai film festival, held in December, has cancelled its edition this year. There is no longer a film festival in Doha or Abu Dhabi, while the Marrakech festival in Morocco didn’t have an edition last year. Ahead of its 40th anniversary, the Cairo festival installed a new president to lead the influential cultural event into the future. Mohamed Hefzy, the new festival president, is a respected figure in world cinema. At 42, Hefzy, an engineer by training, is a hugely successful scriptwriter and producer of such films as Clash, Yomeddine (both premiered at Cannes) and Sheikh Jackson.
“As the CIFF turns 40 editions old, we embrace and pay tribute to Cairo’s great cinema-going public and celebrate this great city’s rich multi-faceted heritage of cinema and art,” said Hefzy, who invited major film personalities such as English actor Ralph Fiennes, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza, British director Peter Greenaway and Venice film festival director Alberto Barbera to Cairo this year. His improved programming included Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron’s new film Roma, Ukranian Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (which opened the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes festival this year), Swedish film Border, Fiennes’ directorial venture The White Crow and American Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
A masterclass by Mendoza, who won the Best Director award at Cannes in 2009 for Kinatay (about police corruption in Philippines’ capital Manila), drew a packed audience, mostly young people from Arab countries. “I see much more audience attending screenings, workshops and masterclasses this year,” said former CIFF president Amir Emary. “It is a very ambitious version of CIFF this year,” he added.
The festival’s new president also reintroduced an industry platform, Cairo Industry Days, this year. “It will cater to the needs of a growing regional film industry,” said Hefzy. As many as 150 film professionals took part in Cairo Industry Days’ rigorous events held at the Semiramis InterContinental by the Nile, learning key factors in funding and co-production from experienced professionals. The section’s co-production market witnessed 17 new projects in development and post-production, aiming for grants and prizes up to $150,000 (about Rs 1 crore).
“Cairo Industry Days is a helpful platform for newcomers like me,” said Sameh Gamal, a young filmmaker from Egypt’s Alexandria city, who participated in the development workshop. Gamal, whose first feature film project is in the early stages of making, is a graduate of the Dramatic Arts School in Tunis. He arrived at the festival with the second draft of his script of a film about three children who kill their parents. “It is based on true stories,” said Gamal. “The film is about how our children will judge us as defeated parents.”
With the CIFF pushing hopes of future talents, Arab cinema is certain to garner gains across the world. “There is a lot of new talent in Arab cinema,” said Venice film festival director Alberto Barbera. “I am extremely interested in knowing the talented filmmakers working on new ways to tell stories reflecting the realities of the region,” added Barbera.
While Arab filmmakers benefiting from the Cairo festival’s industry support will get to screen their films at major international festivals like Venice and Cannes, the CIFF is re-emerging as the platform for regional directors to show their films. “We had the chance to get more Arab films this year,” said CIFF artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah. The absence of the Dubai festival ensured that Cairo received Arab films that otherwise would have premiered at Dubai, a venue visited by high-profile sales agents and distributors from the West.
The new leadership also succeeded in forging new partnerships. With more than half of the festival budget coming from the private sector this year, the CIFF was more independently-funded, giving it more artistic and organisational freedom. There was more activity at the red carpet and Cairo Opera House, the main venue, drew more people. To celebrate the 40th anniversary, the festival also mounted an exhibition to tell its long story. The 40th Legacy exhibition revisited the 120-year-old history of Egyptian cinema and the CIFF, which has became a landmark in the art landscape of the Arab region.
The festival also embraced technological advances in filmmaking by adding virtual reality (VR) film screenings this year, a huge draw among the audience. Among the entries were a collection of VR documentaries from Africa, such as the Nigerian film In Bakassi, the Senegalese The Other Dakar: Let this be a warning and Nairobi Berries, and the Guinean film Spirit Robot. From the main venue of Cairo Opera House, the festival spread to the rest of the city for this year’s edition. The 11 screens across the city boasted high-quality digital projection, adding to the viewing experience of such films as Green Book, the Toronto festival’s People’s Choice Award-winner that opened the festival on November 20. The landmark year for the Cairo festival was a breath of fresh air flowing from the nearby Nile’s countless graces.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer