In the home of filmmaker Amal Ramsis, piles of DVDs and posters are everywhere. People are constantly coming and going, and the phone never stops ringing. This downtown Cairo apartment seasonally turns into the headquarters of the week-long Cairo International Women’s Film Festival (CIWFF), which starts on March 4.
This year is particularly busy as the festival celebrates its tenth anniversary. Forty-five-year-old Ramsis, who has grown the festival from a specific regional focus and one venue to an international festival sprawling across multiple screens, is anxious with anticipation.
Between jobs in 2013 and looking to work in a project related to cinema, I was part of the small team that ran the festival: around four to five women under Ramsis’ supervision, all wearing several hats. So as an erstwhile insider, I sat with Ramsis last week to learn about the festival’s journey, which really starts with the journey of the founder herself.
Ramsis’ interest in cinema began when her local Nasr City open-air cinema became her window onto the world as a child. Despite her desire to pursue cinema, her parents convinced her to study law. Like many Egyptian families, they didn’t see a secure future for her in the cinema industry. Although Ramsis enjoyed her legal studies, she found the reality after graduation was a far cry from the romantic notions she had of defending the poor and challenging cases.
After 10 years of jobs in newspapers, publishing and even a textile factory, Ramsis decided in 2001 that it was time to prioritize cinema — especially after working as an assistant director with filmmaker and friend Arab Lotfy on several documentary projects.
She obtained a scholarship from the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to study cinema for three years in Madrid, where she had the chance to learn more about Latin American cinema, while making her own films during her studies.
It was with her first film, Only Dreams (2005), a documentary made during her studies in which women talk about what they dream of when they sleep, that the idea of the festival came to Ramsis’ mind. The film participated in a festival in Cuba focused on low-budget productions. While there, Ramsis realized two things: that Latin American films are rarely shown in Egypt, and that her film was the only Arabic film in the festival. “That’s not because it was the best one,” Ramsis tells me, “but because it happened to have Spanish subtitles.”
This prompted the Arab Ibero-American Women’s Film Festival: a festival that would show both Arab and Latin American films, and offer a platform to women filmmakers. The Spanish Embassy in Cairo was the first to support the festival financially, and later other European and Latin American embassies and cultural centers in Cairo also became funders.
For Ramsis, the festival draws on the parallels between the two regions that “have political, social and economic similarities, yet never overlap.” She gives an example from a 2010 discussion after screening Paula Rodriguez’s documentary Pinochet’s Children, about Chile’s student movement after military dictator Augusto Pinochet was democratically removed from power.
“The audience started comparing themselves to Chile and asking what would happen if [Hosni] Mubarak left, comparing the political parties in Chile at the time to the ones in Egypt,” she says. “It makes you realize how similar our situation in the Arab world is to a country like Chile.”
But the women gradually became the initiative’s most important aspect: Ramsis found that female filmmakers have a small presence in festivals in comparison to their male counterparts. The festival opened up its regional focus to become international in 2013, and was renamed as the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival. However, it continued to have a special section for films from the Arab world and Latin America, titled the “Caravan of Arab and Ibero-American Women Films.” Over the last 10 years, the Caravan has toured more than 45 times in the Arab world and Latin America through a mini-festival that screens six to seven films at a time.
“When we started, people thought they were coming to watch films about violence against women — as if that’s only topic women filmmakers can talk about,” Ramsis says. She wanted to show that women have an artistic perspective on all issues.
Many participating filmmakers echo Ramsis’s statements. Threes Anna, a Dutch filmmaker whose film Silent City won the CIWFF audience award in 2013, says the film industry is still “a predominantly male business,” despite the increase of women directors.
Palestinian filmmaker Wafaa Jamil, whose film Coffee for all Nations was shown at last year’s edition, believes it is important for men and women to work in the industry side by side, but she values the chance to represent films exclusively from female perspectives.
“When we started, people thought they were coming to watch films about violence against women — as if that’s only topic female filmmakers can talk about”
Although Egyptian filmmaker Hala Lotfy isn’t a fan of initiatives that classify films according to gender or ethnicity – a criticism that often comes up over the festival – she says the CIWFF is the only female-centered festival she has ever taken part in. Lotfy, who has shown films in two editions and is screening On Feeling Cold (2008) in this year’s anniversary “Best of Ten Years” program, says it is a real bridge between cultures, and although it focuses on women filmmakers, the films are never exclusively about “women’s issues.”
Ramsis believes the festival has succeeded in drawing people to it primarily because all the films have Arabic subtitles, the screenings are free of charge and the filmmakers are usually present to engage in a discussion after the film.
As it opened up to films from outside the Arab and Ibero-American regions in 2013, the festival also expanded from its selection of around 20 films and its sole venue at the Artistic Creativity Centre in the Cairo Opera House Grounds. To accommodate more viewers, Ramsis included venues such as Falaki Theater and the Goethe Institut. But this expansion coincided with months of nationwide political turmoil and many festivals were cancelled that year.
Ramsis decided to hold the festival later that year, in November, right after the three-month curfew was lifted. “It was a risk,” she says. “It wasn’t the best time, but we decided that in times of crisis you either fade out or become stronger.”
She says the high turnout was astonishing. “People went through the hassle of passing through checkpoints and security to come see a film,” she says. “It makes you really realize how important cinema is to people.”
Ramsis would like to participate in the recent move to decentralize alternative cinema from the capital, led by Zawya Cinema, the documentary-centered Cinedelta and Alexandria’s Cinema Everywhere.
As part of the festival’s educational component, a four-day workshop was held in Nasr al-Nuba, a Nubian village in Aswan, in December. 19 women who had never used a camera before were taught to work together to tell stories that interested each of them in a one-minute film. The participants’ films will be shown at the festival.
Ramsis says a lack of equipment outside big cities means that so far CIWFF has only managed to host a few screenings outside Cairo — in 2015 in Alexandria and Minya, in partnership with the Jesuit School of Cinema, and in Assiut with the help of local NGO Al-Adala w al-Salama.
“Cairo has everything, while outside of it options are limited and there is a need to be exposed to different forms of media that show different images and dreams,” says Ramsis. “Cinema can’t be cinema without being seen by people.”
The CIWFF runs from March 4-9. Full program here. This article was commissioned and edited by Rowan El Shimi.