The 34th Cairo International Film Festival: More films, fewer stars

Preparations are underway at the Cairo Opera House for the opening ceremony of the 34th Cairo International Film Festival and organizers are trying hard to keep people excited. But they have been only partially successful in raising the expectations of audiences and critics due to past experiences with the festival.

In 1983, the CIFF was taken over from its founder, late art critic and journalist Kamal al-Malakh, by the Arab Artists Union, headed by late writer Saad Eldeen Wahba. Wahba’s influence and high-level contacts allowed the festival to screen avant-garde foreign films–many of which included controversial content–in downtown Cairo cinemas. At the time–in the absence of Internet, satellite, and DVDs–the festival attracted such large numbers of moviegoers that no sponsors or funding were needed.

Among those attending the early years of the festival were film buffs, film students and filmmakers for whom the festival represented a chance to view a variety of foreign films (non-American and non-Egyptian), otherwise unavailable in Egypt.

But now, with the existence of new media, movie buffs looking for uncut films have dwindled, and those who remained found considerable negligence on the part of the festival organizers, who grew to depend less on ticket sales. Now, festival funding comes from the Ministry of Culture and one main sponsor, while the festival board doesn’t seem to prioritize educating people in cinema. Instead of interesting films, they seem to consider the festival a success depending on the number of red carpets, gala events and the amount of accompanying media coverage.

As festival organizers lost interest in courting film enthusiasts–with screenings times consistently changing and little promotion–the latter appear to have lost interest in the festival. This year, local cinemas refused to host the festival because it would mean halting screenings of popular (if not critically acclaimed) Eid al-Adha Egyptian films. Only five screens in Cairo are showing the festival, including three at the Opera House, which require special passes.

There is a real need to rejuvenate the festival’s board, organizers and logistics in order to compete with similar festivals worldwide. The festival should once again be a platform for film education and future co-production and distribution of Egyptian film throughout a real film market, like the Cannes or Berlin festivals. Festivals abroad are about producers, distributors and filmmakers gathering to discuss future projects and to buy and sell new ideas and films.

Perhaps Wahba erred in how he ran the festival, but even after he passed away in 1997, his errors lingered. His secretary, Soheir Abdel Kader, now runs the festival in the new millennium with a 1980s mentality. She has a major influence over festival presidents (there have been four in the last twenty years), and she is now Festival Director–a position that, in other parts of the world, is given to specialized film critics and curators.

Leading up to the 34th Cairo International Film Festival, conflicting news has been reported about invited stars, the opening film and the festival’s program. The closer we got to the festival’s start date, the greater the number of schedule changes.

At a press conference two weeks ago, the festival’s president, Egyptian actor Ezzat Abou-Ouf, announced that the festival budget from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture had been cut. There is only one main sponsor, most of whose money will go to the extravagant gala nights. Abou-Ouf criticized the festival's traditional featured country, saying that the custom’s only benefit was cocktail parties at their respective embassies.

But last year, with India as the guest of honor, the festival provided a platform for Indian filmmakers, who came with great enthusiasm, to bring back the popularity of Indian cinema to Egyptian audiences. As a result, the Indian movie "My Name is Khan" was one of the highest grossing foreign films in Egypt in 2010, coming in right after the Leonardo DiCaprio Hollywood blockbuster, "Inception."

This year, organizers made Egypt the prime focus, while Queen Nefertiti became the 34th festival’s new avatar, and a series of new films from Turkey will be highlighted. The festival’s scope has been tightened in other ways. French star Juliette Binoche and American star Richard Gere, who once worked together in the American film "Bee Season" (2005), will be the festival’s only A-list guests. Receptions will be limited to a dinner following the opening and another dinner for Binoche.

The festival’s opening film was announced only recently. At the conference, Abou-Ouf mentioned three films in the running: Hawi by Ibrahim al-Batout (which won the Arab Film Award in Doha); the controversial Al-Shouq ("Lust") by Khaled al-Haggar; and the Italian film "The Father and the Stranger" (starring Egyptian actor Amr Waked). But over the Eid, a fourth film was announced as the official opener: "Another Year" by acclaimed filmmaker Mike Leigh, a drama about an old married couple who tries to help friends and neighbors overcome unhappiness.

This year’s festival will pay tribute to Egyptians who have achieved success abroad, including actor Khalid Abdalla, star of "Green Zone," "The Kite Runner" and "United 93"; Washington-based filmmaker Milad Bessada, whose credits include "Search for Diana" (1993); and director of photography Fouad Said, who invented the "cinemobile,” a van-like vehicle that facilitates the transport of filming equipment. Actresses Leila Olwy and Safeya al-Emary, as well as director of photography Ramses Marzouk, will also be celebrated. A book about Egyptian Golden Era film legends Amina Rizk and Mahmoud el-Melegy will be published in celebration of their centenary.

Three Egyptian films will make their local premiere. "Microphone," a film by Ahmad Abdalla, which was first shown at the Toronto Festival last September and won the Grand Prize at the Carthage Festival last October, and El-Tariq El-Da’iri ("Ring Road") by Tamer Ezzat will compete in the Arab film category. El-Tariq El-Da’iri sheds light on corruption in local hospitals and illicit human-organ trafficking. Finally, El-Shouq ("Lust") by Khaled al-Haggar addresses social repression among poor young women in Cairo with a cast that includes Ruby, Bassem Samra, Sawsan Badr, Basma and Maryan.

The international jury will be headed by Mexican filmmaker Arturo Ripstein and will include two Egyptian members: filmmaker Aly Badrakhan and producer Mohamed Hefzy, as well as Moroccan actor Mohamed Moftah. Among its films will be the Turkish drama "Ask Your Heart" by Yusuf Kurcenl, a historical love story set in the Ottoman period. "Who Am I," from Russia, begins with the discovery of an amnesic man lacking any identification in a Moscow train station. Authorities assign Dr. Sergei to try to help the man, whose case attracts Oksana, a journalist played by Zhanna Friske.

Also selected is the award-winning South Korean film "Poetry" by writer-director Chang-dong Lee starring Jeong-hee Yoon as Mija, a woman who lives with her grandson in a small suburban city. By chance, she takes a poetry class at a neighborhood cultural center and is challenged to write a poem for the first time. Jeong-hee Yoon will present the film.

But for the festival to be up to international standards, it needs young talent on its board, a good press area, a real film market to support the distribution of Egyptian cinema, an interest in co-production projects, and a refocus on exposing local audiences to interesting, risk-taking film.

Without these elements, and with a shrinking budget, it will be hard to compete with other festivals.

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