Marianne Khoury is busy, and her Misr International Films office is bustling with people streaming in and out as they prepare for the sixth edition of the Panorama of the European Film.
The festival shows films you can’t see anywhere else in Egypt and has gained repute for its savvy programming. Panorama launched in 2004, and it continues to evolve with each new edition. This year it takes place from November 27 to December 7 at City Stars (Nasr City), Plaza Cinema (Sheikh Zayed), and Galaxy (Manial).
Since its founding in 1972 by Khoury’s uncle, the late filmmaker Youssef Chahine, Misr International Films has produced over 45 films, documentaries and TV dramas. Chahine’s role in the company has now been taken on by several members of his family and a proliferating group of young industry professionals, and it continues to produce films locally and regionally.
Khoury, also a director herself, sees the Panorama as part of Misr International’s ongoing attempt to expand cultural dialogue and understanding.
Mada Masr: Can you give us some opening words about this year’s Panorama?
Marianne Khoury: Well, in an environment full of uncertainties, the Panorama still manages to grow — this year’s edition will see 50 films screened in three locations over 10 days. Last year’s edition was only seven days long, we only had two cinema locations and 30 films. We have worked hard this year to ensure that screenings are accessible, affordable, and spread out geographically to satisfy Cairo’s diverse demographics. Tickets are cheaper this year as well: LE15 for morning shows and LE25 for evening shows.
MM: Does this mean you had more budget this year?
MK: Ha! I wish, but definitely not. We always start planning at the beginning of the year and never leave it until the end. This year, we’ve added new blood to the Panorama — there’s more young people working here, we have a bigger team full of youthful perspectives and who are very passionate about film.
Also, for the first time, the Ministry of Tourism has contributed to the Panorama. It all happened very last minute, but they have promised us 10 airline tickets, some help in transportation mostly. It’s nothing huge but I’m just happy to have triggered their participation this year because I always imagined they should be involved with the Panorama in some capacity.
MM: How involved were these young staff members in the selection process?
MK: Young [under 30-year-old] staff members were involved in the selection process from start to finish. I mean everything, they watched the films, we discussed them, they got in touch with the distributors, and brought in the actual films. I’m trying this thing called delegation now — it’s a new process for the Panorama to have younger hands more involved, and me less involved. But I believe it’s important to have younger generations’ input on the films, and even in logistics and communications.
MM: And were you able to get all the films you wanted?
MK: We can never really get all the films we ideally want. Many are quite costly and have already been scooped up by other festivals or events. We have a Nordic focus for the European films this year. In the past we have focused on French cinema, German, British, and Dutch. I think the films screening this time are quite interesting — it was a good year for Nordic cinema, and because of this we found an opportunity to show the audience that you can be entertained with films that are not American. And these films, like Baltasar Kormakur’s “The Deep,” Michael Noer’s “Northwest,” and Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking,” are thrillers and they very captivating.
MM: I heard a rumor that you were trying to bring in “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Is that true? [This Abdellatif Kechiche film was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and has become notorious for its sexually graphic and sad portrayal of a love story between two young women.]
MK: Where did you hear that? [Laughs.]
MM: The culture writers at Mada were talking about it…
MK: I wanted to, so much. I saw it in Paris and I love it. I think Kechiche is a brilliant director. But by the time I saw it, and wanted to bring it in, we had already closed the selection and there just wasn’t enough time. Each film we bring into the festival requires so much work around it: getting the contacts, distributors, approval, it’s a process. So when we close the selection it’s difficult to reconsider it — even if the censorship body says yes, you’ll always have a problem once the film actually gets here — and these films are extremely expensive, so I didn’t take the risk.
MM: Let’s talk about some of the new additions to the Panorama’s program this year, like the Claire Denis retrospective, and the massive selection of “Emerging Directors.”
MK: I think Claire Denis is a very interesting director. She has also lived in Egypt before. Mostly, she is known for her usage of post-colonial themes in her films, because she spent a great deal of time living in West Africa. Her films, like “Beau Travail” and “White Material” are very, very powerful. And they are almost always quite tough.
The “Emerging Directors” section happened a bit haphazardly. We just happened to end up with a big selection — I thought at first there was a mistake, so we rechecked them all to confirm they were first-time filmmakers. But really the quality of their first films are so high. From Egypt there’s Hala Lotfy with “Coming Forth By Day” and Ayten Amin with “Villa 69.”
MM: I saw Lotfy’s film earlier this year, it was excellent. The characters had a strong physicality, and the way she played with darkness and light was stunning.
MK: Yes it moved me a lot, personally, and it’s also a bit autobiographical. I like the way it was made, the whole experience is very inspiring. And with “Villa 69” what’s interesting is that it’s not only an auteur film, but it has experienced actors like Khaled Abol Naga and Lebleba.
MM: Moving on to the documentary selections — what sort of criteria were you looking for?
MK: Controversial films. [She laughs.] Overall, the documentaries are extremely powerful, like “Sleepless Nights” by Lebanese director Eliane Raheb, “A World not Ours” by Mahdi Fleifel (Lebanon), and Hinde Boujemaa’s “It was Better Tomorrow” and “Curse be the Phosphate” by Sami Tlili (both Tunisia). And of course Saad Hendawy’s “Doaa … Aziza” (Egypt). In the latter there’s a great discussion about two contrasting cultures and the girls who live in them, it’s a very interesting topic.
Also, we’re hoping Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” (Egypt/USA) will make it through the approval.
MM: It’s powerful film. And a bit dangerous now with its content amid the current political polarization — do you think it will pass through censorship? [Noujaim’s second feature-length documentary is about the stories behind the news between winter 2011 and summer 2013 in Egypt.]
MK: We’re trying hard to get it in. It’s an important film. We hope it will make it through. All the films in the selection went through censorship. And they have written a good report for us, but we’re still awaiting final approval.
So far, the process has been the same as previous years with the censorship body — it’s not true that it was better before and worse now, or better now and worse before. It’s still the same system, it hasn’t changed, so the process is the same.
MM: Let’s discuss the development of the “Short Film Section” which I believe is a byproduct of the “Women in the New Egypt” project?
MK: The “Women in the New Egypt” project is in partnership with British Embassy and British Council. There was a call asking beginners to submit short films and we got 70 applications, of which 10 were selected for a three-day workshop with Egyptian director Mohamed Khan, who is excellent. He worked with them to teach them how to transform their script treatments into story boards — it was a bit of theory and a bit practice. After which five were chosen to show in this year’s Panorama.
MM: Can you also tell us a bit more about the pedagogical aspect of this year’s Panorama?
MK: The educational component is quite important this year. We always have an educational aspect to the program, but this year’s Panorama has a special focus on the theme of “Education and Cinema.” Students from numerous schools and age groups will have the possibility to watch films which not only aim at nurturing their passion for cinema, but will also teach them the virtue of debate and critical thinking in an ever-changing Egyptian landscape. We’re having a conference with many private and public school teachers. We will also hold free screenings during morning sessions for teachers and students. It’s important to bring people into the cinema experience, while exposing young people to different types of cinema and culture.
MM: What keeps you doing this event year after year? It must be difficult to organize, especially with all the political uncertainty.
MK: More than ever, we believe that cinema should remain a constant presence in the cultural fabric of society and, particularly during dire political times, serve as a medium for expression and an art form of resistance. Now it’s getting really interesting because the younger generation is so involved. They are developing things — they still have dreams, and dreams are so very important.