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The lowdown on Cairo’s 38th film festival: More organized, decentralized and commercial
From new features to highlights of the program, here's our take on CIFF
Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Barakah Meets Barakah

The 38th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) runs from today until November 25, and this year it will emerge from the Cairo Opera House halls, where it has been held since the 2011 revolution, and back into downtown Cairo via cinemas Odeon and Karim.

The move is part of the festival’s slogan “cinema for the masses,” and it is trying to reach out not only geographically but virtually, through online ticket purchasing in collaboration with Egypt’s IMDB,

CIFF says it has new ticketing systems (at LE20 per film — double last year’s price) both online and at cinemas to ensure that everyone who registers for a film (by obtaining a pass or ticket) is guaranteed a seat. We’re yet to see how this will work in practice, but if it succeeds it could happily eradicate the chaos seen at entrances in previous years.

The festival has also launched a mobile app intended to give access to the program, although in reality this is just the website in app-form with no extra features.

Under the auspices of the Culture Ministry, CIFF’s first ever female president Magda Wassef and artistic director Youssef Sherif Rizkallah are running the festival for a second consecutive year.

There are over 200 films in the official selection, parallel programs, retrospectives, talks and workshops. This edition pays homage to prominent director Mohamed Khan, who passed away this year, by both giving him an honorary award and hosting tribute screenings, and it is dedicated to actor Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, who passed away on November 12.

The festival includes 32 Egyptian films, and is hosting a special “Panorama” for Egyptian films that have been successful at home and abroad in the past two years, such as Hepta: The Last Lecture, Eshtebak (Clash), Nawara and Sukkar Mur (Bitter Sugar).

While the festival’s administration seems to be addressing a lot of the criticism of its disorganization, the edition does not come without controversies. After the festival first accepted, then removed Tamer El Said’s much-anticipated In the Last Days of the City from its official competition at the end of October, some members of the the film industry expressed outrage at CIFF’s lack of professionalism. Said’s film was replaced by The Other Land, a film about Egyptian undocumented migration by a director known for commercial comedies, Ali Edriss.

The festival opens Tuesday with a screening of Kamla Abo Zekry’s A Day for Women, her first feature film since the critically acclaimed Wahed Sefr (One, Nil, 2009). A Day for Women, which also competes in the festival’s international competition, has Nelly Karim and Elham Shahin leading the cast in a story about an impoverished Cairo neighborhood as it reacts to the local youth center allocating a day for women at the swimming pool.

The competition also includes big titles from Cannes, including Romanian film Dogs by Bogdan Mirică and the celebrated Moroccan-Spanish production Mimosas by Oliver Lake.

Other high-profile films in competition are Georgian filmmaker Nino Basilia’s Anna’s Life, about a single mother trying to create a better life for her child, and Attila Till’s Kills of Wheels (Hungary), about a wheelchair-bound hired assassin. An Algerian production about a family during the Algerian war, Karim Tradia’s Chronicles of My Village, is the only Arab film aside from the two Egyptian films in competition. Licínio Azevedo’s The Train of Salt and Sugar, set in Mozambique during the civil war in 1980, is based on a novel by the director.

But the out-of-competition selection, which also include films from Cannes, seems to offer more interesting works. Maren Ade’s German Oscar submission Toni Erdman, in which a free-spirited father visits his overworked daughter, looks good. Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (Romania) and Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’Rosa (Philippines) have also been widely praised.

Two of the titles we’re most excited about are It’s Only the End of the World, by 27-year-old Mommy director Xavier Dolan, and popular Serbian director Emir Kustrica’s On the Milky Road.

The section also includes three big American titles including Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next?, a quirky production that premiered at Sundance Film Festival and stars Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse called Swiss Army Man, and Stephen Frears’ Meryl Streep vehicle Florence Foster Jenkins, about a famously awful opera singer.

CIFF has three parallel programs for the third year in a row: Prospects of Arab Cinema, New Horizons Competition and the Critics Week.

Critics Week has two promising titles. Alaa Edine Slim’s The Last One of Us (Tunisia), which premiered at the Venice Critics Week, is a dialogue-free film about a sub-Saharan African man’s encounters with surreal imaginary beings on his journey to Europe. Tomáš Weinreb’s I, Olga Hepnarova (Czechoslovakia) retells the story of a Czechoslovakian female mass murderer the 1970s.

In spite of a common language and geographical proximity, Egyptians get precious few opportunities to see regional cinema, and the Prospects of Arab Cinema is one of them.

Farid Boughedir’s The Sweet Smell of Spring (Tunisia) is the third installment in a trilogy representing phases of his life, this time adulthood, and it deals with his relationship to the Tunisian Revolution. Mohamed Al Sharif Al Tarebaq’s Small Weddings (Morocco), about two women in the Tetouan province in the 1950s, has faced controversies at home because people felt it misrepresented Tetouanese women.

The most recognized title from the Prospects list is Mahmoud Sabbagh’s critically acclaimed Barakah Meets Barakah (Saudi Arabia), a romantic comedy in which all the drama comes from its conservative Saudi setting.

Check out the full program here.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist