The Cairo International Film Festival ended yesterday with an awards ceremony. I’ll spare you another list of who won what and instead try to take some of the winners as pointers to what the 37th CIFF has shown us about world, Arab and Egyptian cinema today, while outlining what I hope for in future editions of the festival.
The Golden Pyramid winner was Mediterranea (2015), by Italian-American director Jonas Carpignano. Its lead, Koudous Seihon, also bagged best actor. Like many films this year, this film used non-professional actors – we did not really see any of the stars of world cinema in competing films. Some critics have taken the interest in non-actors, in addition to an increasingly popular documentary style of shooting, to be a sign of a “new realism” in world cinema. Mediterranea is certainly a film with a documentary feel. Hand-held cameras, spontaneous acting and camera movements, some grainy images, and the absence a real plot line in favor of a roaming exploration of a condition or a “structure of feeling” are all signs of this aesthetic.
I am not sure though to what extent this claim of a documentary turn or “new realism” applies to the Arab films included in this CIFF. As noted in my previous posts on Fi Youm (which got special mention) and Waiting for Autumn (which received the first prize in the Arab Horizons section), there seems to be a move toward a sort of anti-realism in Arab and Egyptian cinema. Many films in the Arab Horizons competition blur the relationship between documentary and fantasy, reality and dream. They find in these murky waters, I’d argue, a fertile interstitial space in which new meanings and ideas might be born, a space perhaps emerging from the unique experiences of being an Arab and a citizen of the global south today.
Mediterranea explores immigration – without a doubt, a global hot topic. But to be honest, watching the film one gets the sense that the intended audience is European or American. This is a feeling that bugged me throughout the festival. The vast majority of films in the program this year are European. There were only 10 Arab films across all categories in the program. Some have noted that this is the smallest number to be included since the festival’s founding in 1976. When so much is going on in Arab cinema, I’m not sure why there weren’t more. I would have really liked to see more documentary and experimental films included – Kawthar Younis’ A Present from the Past (2015), for example, made a splash at this CIFF.
Asking who a film’s intended audience is is an important question, especially as we are trying, here in Egypt and more generally in the region, to discover what our own cinematic language could look like in future, what type of cinema we want to have. One danger of having European or American cinema dominate a festival or market, especially in our current global economic structure, is that the cultural hegemony of that worldview or cinematic language will only grow stronger.
I really appreciate how films like Karim Shaban’s Fi Youm and Joud Said’s Waiting for Autumn refused self-orientalizing. They resisted the reproduction of a “western” gaze. It is true that cinema can be a global experience and many of the emotions and questions raised in films are relatable across geographies, but so many so-called festival films in the Arab world try to appeal to an outsiders’ eyes. The reasons for this are varied, but I’d say a lack of strong government financing in the Arab region is key.
I would have liked the occasion of CIFF to be one for exploring questions about the gaze and the structures of distribution and production in Egypt and the Arab world. I appreciated the Eastern-European focus and the inclusion of some Latin American films, but would have liked a less eurocentric festival.
In future years, I’d certainly also appreciate the addition of an experimental section and the expansion of the Arab Horizons section. If A Present from the Past is an indicator of what is currently coming out of the Higher Institute of Cinema in Cairo, CIFF has be a platform on wihch more emerging Egyptian directors and filmmakers are introduced to the world.
In A Present from the Past, Younis explores the autobiographical documentary tradition. She uses hidden cameras to tell the story of her father’s reunion with his Italian ex-wife after 33 years. The use of hidden cameras, the interest in how memories evolve within families and how the camera is part of that evolution of memories all raise important questions about the camera as a tool with which to approach life and the everyday. Compared to narrative films and other documentary genres, Younis offers a different idea of what the camera can be and creates a very unique position for the audience.
Overall it has been an exciting 10 days. I really hope a structure is put in place where these amazing films screened can be watched year round – as it’s exciting times for anyone interested in cinema.