Overtones of sadness bore on the 35th Cairo International Film Festival's closing ceremony due to the political turmoil that took over Egypt this week.
The ceremony was cancelled and replaced with a press conference announcing the festival's winners. Minister of Culture Saber El-Arab was absent and the president of the festiva, Ezzat Abu Auf, handed out the awards.
The attendees stood for a minute of silence to pay respect to those who died during the revolution, especially the deaths of the past few days, then chants broke out against Muslim Botherhood rule. Many of the speeches stressed that "Egypt would not be stolen." Protests have broken out in Egypt since President Mohamed Morsi one-sidedly issued a Constitutional Declaration giving himself sweeping powers and his decisions immunity from the judiciary.
After the chants ceased during festival's opening, and a short introduction, the organisers presented the festival’s awards.
The International Critics' Prize was awarded to Venezuelan directors Luis Alejandro and Andrés Eduardo Rodríguez for the film Breach in the Silence.
The Tahrir Square Prize for best film promoting human rights values was awarded to Polish director Wojciech Smarzowski for Rose.
In the Arab film competition, Lebanese director Joe Bou Eid was awarded a special mention for Heels of War, along with the Palestinian film When I Saw by Anne Marie Jacir.
The Isis prize for best actor in the Arab film competition was claimed by Kuwaiti actor Saad Al Farag for his role in Tora Bora, while Adila Ben Dimerad from Algeria won for best actress.
The Naguib Mahfouz prize for the best Arab film was awarded to The Miscreants from Morocco.
And the Egyptian film Winter of Discontent by Ibrahim El Batout was awarded a special mention in the Arab films competition.
The Cairo Film Connection Prize was awarded to Egyptian/Lebanese film Two Rooms and a Parlour directed by Sherif El-Bendari, and to the Feature documentary Little by Nagham Osman.
In the International Competition for feature films, Vanessa Di Quattro from Venezuela was awarded the Isis Prize for best actress and Marian Dziedziel was awarded best actor for his role in Polish film, The Fifth Season of the Year.
Meanwhile, the Shadi Abdel Salam prize went to Breach in the Silence (Venezuela), and the Silver Pyramid, Special Jury Prize was awarded to Bibi, directed by Italian director, Guiliano.
The Golden Pyramid for best film went to French film Rendez-Vous in Kiruna, directed by Anna Novion.
To many this year’s festival was a big hope for the cinema industry and cultural arena in Egypt. Coming after a year of a break due to the revolution, the festival risked losing its international status and, understandably, had to take place to safeguard its international positioning.
From the very start, the festival was challenged by a number of unfortunate events, some of them being out of the festival organiser’s hands. Others, however, resulted from serious organisational shortcomings.
The opening ceremony had to be postponed by one day, a decision based on the large demonstrations that took Tahrir Square by storm on Tuesday, 27 November. Following that, the opening ceremony had a muted spirit. It was also reported on several occasions that a few of the international artists were not granted visas - an element that undoubtedly additionally paralysing the festival.
At the very beginning of the festival, a large group of young artists released a statement on Facebook condemning the festival for alienating Egypt’s up-and-coming actors and filmmakers from the event. Dissatisfied with the festival’s poor representation of the true nature of the youthful cinema movement, many decided to boycott the festival.
Meanwhile, some film critics complained about the film choices.
Following this tough start, soon one realised that the cinema halls lacked audiences. Film discussions missed artists’ presence or proper translation, or simply were not sufficiently equipped with a proper sound system. One cannot expect a big audience turnout considering the severe political turmoil that surrounded the whole festival; however, the flaws in the logistical side of the festival remain impossible to explain.
El-Zohairy, like many artists in the field, believes that the festival’s management by the ministry of culture hinders its potential to grow and prosper, and that it would benefit from independent leadership. He added that a committee, including film producer Mohamed Hefzy and Marian El-Khoury, were initially planned to manage the festival.
Under Egypt's current political situation and growing threat of Islamic domination, not to mention President Mohamed Morsi’s increasing inclinations to what many call "dictatorship," it is very important for the culture scene to exert all of its efforts to secure one of the major channels of expression: the international festival.
Apparently, the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre has been halted since January 2011 revolution. The Cairo International Film Festival is the last big-scale event that puts Egypt on the international arena. It is important for the culture ministry to treat the festival as an important cultural factor in the Egyptian arts scene and not only as an obligation that must be executed in order not to lose international ranking or to maintain an image of "something" happening in the culture sector.