Where does the Cairo International Film Festival stand on Egypt’s cinematic map?
Three film buffs in conversation

A collection of vintage cars used in old Egyptian classics, including the late Ahmed Ramzy’s personal automobile, line the red carpet, alongside antique cameras and telephone sets. Attendees queue up to take pictures with the displayed items, all of which are from the collection of the Museum of Egyptian Film. The museum was founded by producer Hisham Suleiman, who is also the sponsor of this year’s Cairo International Film Festival. Huge cameras film the event from every angle, and groomed presenters stand at every corner to greet and interview the stars before they enter the theater.

This performative spectacle marked the launch of the 39th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) on November 21, which, for the first time since it was established in 1976, did not include an Egyptian film in its main competition.

This year’s CIFF heralded the end of a rich cinematic season, the highlights of which were the first edition of El Gouna Film Festival (September 22–29) and the 10th Panorama of the European Film (November 8–18 ), which prompts the inevitable question: What remains for the Cairo International Film Festival?

In this conversation, documentarian Bassam Mortada, theater director Hakim Abdel Naim and screenwriter Muhammad El-Hajj attempt to answer this question, and address whether the festival is, as its organizers claim, an international film festival that places the art of cinema as its utmost priority, or little more than a yearly bureaucratic feat monopolized by the Egyptian state and its allies in the culture sector?

Listen to the full discussion in Arabic here.

Bassam Mortada: It appears that this year the CIFF organizers were adamant to prove that the festival is still going strong. The opening ceremony was lavish, and, unlike previous years, it was held at the Manara International Conference Center in New Cairo, rather than the Cairo Opera House as has always been the tradition. The usual stars were on the red carpet but it seemed extra extravagant, and, for the first time, a satellite television channel was the festival’s main sponsor, and its presence was also very clear. This makes us wonder why so much attention was directed toward the opening event. It probably has something to do with the success of the cinematic events that preceded the festival this year, namely El Gouna Film Festival (GFF) and the Panorama of the European Film.

Hakim Abdel Naim: Did you notice that this year the entire festival’s visual identity reflected that of the channel sponsoring it? It’s really strange, if you ask me. I think organizers have always viewed the opening ceremony as a reflection of Egypt. Ever since I can remember, the festival has always been reduced to its opening, because it’s the elegant event where everything looks pretty, and the people behind it like to think that this makes Egypt look pretty. There is a fixation on the festival’s image rather than its actual content. A film festival should have a rich, diverse lineup, comprehensive industry programs, panels and masterclasses, and provide real opportunities for filmmakers to get together. This has only happened in CIFF’s 36th edition, back in 2014, which was headed by the late Samir Farid. Otherwise it’s always been “the opening this” and “the opening that.” It’s like the state insists on holding this festival every year not because they want to be present on the region’s cinematic map, but because they want a fancy opening that they believe “represents Egypt.” This was clearly manifested in how the screening hall was empty during the screening of this year’s opening film (Oscar-nominated Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us, 2017). An important director like Abu-Assad came all the way to Cairo and no one stayed to watch his film, all because the ceremony started three hours late and as a result the post-opening reception and the film overlapped. It’s a disaster! And it proves how the obsession with the festival’s “image” trumps any actual passion for cinema. It was really shocking.  

Muhammad El-Hajj: I think the most important question to ask is why CIFF exists. What is its aim, and who does it target? I feel that what organizers are most focused on is just proving that they are here, regardless what it is they are offering. I mean, the screening schedule wasn’t even available until the first day of the festival. As a moviegoer who wanted to plan out which films I wanted to see, and when and where I could see them, I had no way of doing so, because the public was given no information whatsoever about screening times and venues until the opening day. It’s a joke, honestly. And the sections where CIFF really stood out in the past few editions, like its classics selection, for instance—which previously screened restored icons such as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963)—were nowhere to be found this year.

HA: Also during the opening, one of the presenters spoke regretfully about how sad it is that there are no Egyptian films in the main competition, because “how could that be?”—Egyptian filmmakers are usually blamed for not participating in CIFF in a very nationalistic way: “How dare you not take part in your country’s festival?”

BM: We can’t really speak about the participation of Egyptian films in the festival without mentioning that last year the festival administration withdrew Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City (2016) from the international competition without providing any clear reasons. This year it’s the same team (festival president Magda Wassef and artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah) and they’re completely ignoring what they did last year, blaming the state of the Egyptian industry for the fact that there are no Egyptian films competing this year.

MH: Which brings us to another point—how can we even take this festival seriously as a cinematic event if it’s run by instructions from state institutions?

HA: The fact that the festival’s advisory board and selection committee thought it was acceptable for a film to be withdrawn with no justifications after it was officially selected is also entirely absurd.

BM: An Egyptian film competing in CIFF is no longer just an Egyptian film competing in CIFF. It has become a way to decipher who has good relations with the state and who doesn’t. Two editions ago, producer Ahmed El Sobky’s Men Dahr Ragel (Born to a Man, Karim El Sobky, 2015) screened in the festival, and he publicly criticized director Mohamed Khan for choosing to debut his last film Abl Zahmet al-Seif (Before the Summer Crowds, 2015) in the Dubai International Film Festival rather than his “country’s festival.” Sobky created that controversy to score a point with the state, as he knew there’s more to showing your film at CIFF than just screening it.

MH: Any director should want their film to be screened among a selection of a certain quality. Looking at the films CIFF has selected recently, filmmakers who respect their own work and have ambitions won’t think twice before exploring other options. 

BM: What I also don’t understand is why people are speaking about the CIFF in the same terms as the Gouna festival. Why would a festival with the scope of CIFF want to compete with GFF? Cairo festival organizers should not have to focus on appearances, like their Gouna counterparts. They have weight. This is the oldest festival in the country, and it was traditionally held at the Opera House and other major downtown theaters, from the Odeon and Miami to Karim. A festival like CIFF should prioritize attracting the largest number of this city’s residents, in all their diversity, to go and see the films being screened. Our Tunisian friends have often spoken about how people fought over tickets in queues at the Carthage Film Festival. this is the real measure of success. It is the first thing that should matter to a festival that takes place in a megacity with such a huge population, not how the opening ceremony looks on TV.

HA: They really are fixated on appearances. I actually heard talk about organizers being upset because filmmaker and jury member Khairy Beshara wasn’t wearing a tuxedo. He’s such an important director, and they bragged about not letting him in because he didn’t adhere to the dress code. It appears sometimes that the actual cinematic aspect of the festival is the last thing on their minds. One thing that proves this is that there are no networking activities or industry programs whatsoever. It is a festival that offers no support to filmmakers, and yet always expects them to support it. 

MH: I absolutely agree with you, Bassam. Any film festival in city this big has to try and engage with most of the people in one way or another. I heard from a friend, an Arab film critic, that the International Film Festival Rotterdam is attended by an average of 150 thousand people yearly. That’s more than 10 percent percent of the city’s population, even though the festival that shows experimental films. I don’t think 150 thousand people have been to CIFF over the entire 39 years of its existence.

HA: How about we speak about another film event held in Cairo. This year, the Panorama of the European Film sold 17,000 tickets. And the majority of the films screened were European arthouse films, not US blockbusters or anything like that.

MH: And it’s an event organized by five young people in a small downtown Cairo office, not the Culture Ministry and all the support that entails.

BM: CIFF organizers are trying to promote this edition as the beginning of a new era for the festival, even though we know the 36th edition, headed by Samir Farid three years ago, was the best the festival has seen in recent years.

MH: It was an excellent edition.

BM: I clearly remember the closing film was Pantelis Voulgaris’ Little England (2013), it was showing in a theater with a capacity of 1,000 viewers and the screening was sold out.

HA: It was indeed a great edition. There was a silly opening too, of course, but there were also good films.  

BM: Yes! We made fun of the opening like we do every year but there were people coming to the screenings and standing in queues, and some films were so popular that organizers had to schedule extra screenings for them. What is it that happened, then? Why have things been so different since the 2014 edition? Nobody can say the problem is that there is no real audience for films in this city, because the Panorama has proved that there’s no shortage of eager moviegoers.

MH: I think that year simply stood out because of Farid himself. We may not agree with all of his views about films, but he was a man who truly loved this medium, who truly understood it and knew a lot about it, and who was therefore truly appreciated in the field. He was a film critic in the real, deep sense of the word, and he filled that role with integrity. When he headed CIFF, he knew what he was doing. I’ve been attending the festival ever since I was in college, and that edition offered some of the best programming I’ve seen in the last 10 years. And it wasn’t just him, honestly, but also the young people who worked with him that year and carried the festival on their shoulders, and who all left when he did. But, yes, nobody can blame the current lack of turnout or enthusiasm on people’s disinterest or inability to understand films. This has never been the case.

BM: I think it also has to do with the kind of figures whose presence the festival administration is keen on attracting. You need stars for the red carpet, but you need artists and industry professionals for the actual festival. They’re the ones who fill the halls and attend the Q&A sessions and give life to all the events. In Farid’s edition that was the case. We saw many young, independent filmmakers in the festival, not only as active audience members but also as organizers and programmers. I think this also answers the question of why people didn’t stay to watch the opening film. Had half the guest list been made up of stars to work the red carpet and the other half been made up of film workers and enthusiasts, then at least half the attendees would have stayed.  

HA: Egyptian stars don’t watch films. This is a widely known fact. In his Facebook post after the opening, Mohamed Diab admitted that actors working with him often tell him that they had never seen any of his work before, as successful as he is. It’s sad. I mean, during the opening people spoke about everything other than cinema: the setting, the organization, the dresses and the “history” of Egyptian cinema, but not the films themselves. And then they blame the filmmakers, who either have to grovel to authorities for permits to film on the street or risk getting arrested while doing it, for not participating. Well, you offer them no support, and when they try to work with you, you withdraw their films as some kind of punishment. What do you expect?

Bassam Mortada 
Hakim Abdel Naim 
Muhammad El-Hajj 

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