Egypt Independent

Cultivation and Control: Alex Film Festival reflects meager opportunities in Egyptian cinema



On Sunday night, the 27th Alexandria Film Festival for Mediterranean Countries closed with an awards ceremony at the Sayid Darwish Theater. The Turkish film “Our Grand Despair” received the Best Directing and Best Acting awards in the international competition, while “Circus Columbia” from Bosnia was selected as Best Film. The Slovenian “Silent Sonata” was awarded for Best Artistic Directing and the Moroccan “Pegasus” was selected as best film by a promising filmmaker.

No Egyptian films competed in the international competition. Still, Khaled Youssef’s “Kamar’s Palm,” screened in the festival’s opening ceremony on Wednesday, and “Al-Hawi” by Ibrahim al-Batout, both out-of-competition selections, received first and second prizes, respectively, from the Information Ministry.

Over the past weeks, the festival has been repeatedly criticized for organizational and logistical problems. At first, the festival’s organizers announced the selection of “Al-Hawi” in the international competition, only to later refute this, as the festival’s rules prevent the inclusion of films in the competition that have been released commercially; and while Batout’s film was commercially released in Egypt, it was for only a few days in a handful of movie theaters and at non-prime times.

The organizing committee also announced that Egyptian comedian Mahmoud Hemeda would be honored, then quickly replaced him with Yehia al-Fakharany, as the former refused the prize.

The Alex Festival was also criticized for maintaining its in-house recommendation-based approach to selecting films vis-a-vis open calls for submission. Still, some developments were seen in this year’s edition. A number of young artists were selected to sit on the jury for the first time, such as actor Khaled al-Sawy, actress Gihan Fadel and director Amr Salama; and a three-day program was devoted to screening documentary and short films about the 25 January revolution.

Although filmmakers and critics have long criticized the Cairo International Film Festival, Alexandria Film Festival, Ismailia Documentary Film festival and the Child Film Festival for bad organization, lack of cultural identity, favoring Hollywood stars as guests of honor in opening ceremonies and insufficient budgets, some hopes were raised this year after the new board at the National Cinema Center dissolved the High Committee of Festivals.

The committee has long monopolized the organization of all four festivals and often hindered non-governmental initiatives to organize local film events. For instance, a group of digital filmmakers started the first Cairo Digital Film Festival in 2008. Although it gained much popularity among young filmmakers and collected experienced jury members over the past three years, it was considered “unofficial” by the High Committee and received no support.

In March, the Culture Ministry appointed six enthusiastic and experienced filmmakers to the board of the National Cinema Center, which organizes local and international film festivals, funds quality productions in short, documentary and feature films, provides technical support to emerging filmmakers, and in its regulatory capacity is expected to introduce reforms to age-old censorship laws.

Yousry Nasrallah, Magdy Ahmed Ali, Kamla Abu Zikri, Mohamed Ali, Samir Farid and Ahmed Abdallah are optimistic about working with representatives of the Cinema Chamber, Culture Ministry, Cinema Syndicate and the center’s head, Khaled Abdel Galil, on required reforms.

“We want to divert the state’s orientation from controlling the noncommercial cinematic scene to enhancing and supporting it,” says filmmaker and board member Ahmed Abdallah; he believes abolishing the committee was one step in that direction.

The board members put together selection criteria and asked civil society to apply for organizing the festivals. The proposed guidelines included, as Abdallah explains, holding free film screenings in open spaces and densely populated districts, working with local NGOs, and economizing on opening and closing ceremonies. Extravagant opening and closing ceremonies were widely debated each year due to the high costs involved and questions over the wisdom of emulating Westernized traditions without technical competence. The center’s role became to select the organizing foundation, occasionally provide funds and evaluate its performance on both artistic and logistical levels.

But no application process was announced for the Alex Film Festival; the Egyptian Association of Film Writers and Critics, which has been organizing the festival since its launch in 1978, had already received state funds in 2010 to organize the 27th iteration, and the Culture Ministry decided to allow it.

“I would have preferred that they cancel the festival altogether this year, than to present another edition of poor quality,” says film critic Tarek al-Shennawy. “Members of the Society of Screenwriters and Critics are not qualified to organize a respectable cultural event. Since 1978, around 15 directors and technical offices elected by the society’s board failed to acquire an international license for the festival.”

If this is the case, the National Cinema Center might still be able to help. Given the new regulations, filmmaker Magdy Ahmed Ali has been assigned to evaluate the festival in terms of both logistics and artistic quality, and make recommendations that would affect the selection of next year’s organizing entity when an open call is made.

The center’s board members currently place higher hopes on future festivals though, and holding film events in various governorates, says Abdallah.

Another interesting development at the cinema center is the board’s modification of selection criteria for the Culture Ministry’s LE20 million annual film production grants. Ahmed Maher received the grant in 2008 to produce his first fiction film, “Al Mosafer” (The Traveller), which showed last week in theaters, and in 2009, the grant helped produce “Rasael al-Bahr” (Sea Messages) and “Asafir al-Nil” (Birds of the Nile).

The new rules allow young filmmakers who are not members of the syndicate to apply for the grants, as well as screenplays that have not been licensed by the state’s Board of Censors.

Despite repeated calls by filmmakers to amend censorship laws in Egypt, the latest of which was made by the Alex Film Festival President Nader Adly in his statement “100 Years of Censorship are Enough” on the festival's closing night, no changes have been introduced to date. Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi promised changes last March, yet now the plans are to prepare a draft law that bases the censors' work on a clear rating system to be presented to the next elected parliament, says Magdy Ahmed Ali.