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Wednesday, 12 December 2018

INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Amal Ramsis on the 9th Cairo Int'l Women's Film Festival

Director Amal Ramsis talks to Ahram Online about what's new at the 9th Cairo International Women's Film Festival which brings a vibrant selection of 60 films by female filmmakers from 40 countries to local film lovers

Nourhan Tewfik , Monday 22 Feb 2016
(Photo: Fragment from promotional material)
Views: 2214
Views: 2214

For six days, starting on 27 February, Cairene audiences will once again be treated to a top-notch selection of films exclusively crafted by female filmmakers, as part of the 9th Cairo International Women’s Film Festival.

Founded in 2008, the festival began as the Arab and Latin Women’s Film Festival, screening films solely from these two regions, but was renamed The Cairo International Women’s Film Festival in 2013, as it evolved into an international event featuring film selections from all over the globe.

The festival, as is stated on its website, aims to “introduce the best films created by women both from Egypt and around the world” and also acts as “a meeting point for the audience and women filmmakers, both international and from the Arab world.”

As such, it aspires to become “a true window for the best films made by women all over the world” and to entice people to discourse about “different cinematic and social issues.”

Over the past nine years, the festival has secured a loyal audience that enjoys the vibrant variety of films, as well as the master classes and discussions that follow many screenings.

Two distinctive features of the festival have especially contributed to its success: all films are subtitled in Arabic, and all screenings are free of charge. 

Ahram Online met with the festival’s founder, Egyptian filmmaker Amal Ramsis, to talk about its inception and objectives, as well as the highlights of the upcoming edition.

Festival's inception

The idea for the festival came to Ramsis back in 2005 when she was in Cuba screening her film Bas Ahlam at the Festival Internacional de Cine Pobre (Festival of Poor Cinema), an established festival celebrating low-budget cinema.

Ramsis’ film was the only Arab work screened at the festival, which as she would find out was the case because her film was subtitled in Spanish.

“I was frustrated at the idea that language stood as a barrier between us and countries like Latin America which we have much in common with,” Ramsis tells Ahram Online.

But besides this interest in transcending language barriers, a whole array of reasons contributed to the birth of this festival.

At the core of such reasons was an avid interest on Ramsis’ part to both unearth women’s capabilities and achievements in the field of cinema, and to allow people “to get to know each other through the eyes of women filmmakers,” as she puts it.

Ramsis also wanted to help Egyptian cinema reclaim its lost glory.

“Egypt was once home to a successful film industry which began to deteriorate decades ago, and which was to a certain extent saved in the 1980s by filmmakers like Mohamed Khan, Khairy Bishara, Raafat El-Mihi and Ali Badrakhan. But today, we are witnessing a crumbling film industry and also the absence of proper film criticism,” Ramsis asserts.

“The more you watch films”, Ramsis explains, “the more capable you become of assessing yourself and the cinema you’re making.”

“By screening a huge selection of films in the festival, we hope they could be of benefit to filmmakers, and help introduce them to different film schools and genres.”

The festival is also fueled by Ramsis’ belief in the power of cinema as a medium that can communicate ideas and tug at different social issues and grievances, all in a subtle manner.

“You can watch a film based in Bolivia and relate to it just because it discusses a problem you happen to be facing in Egypt. In this way, cinema stimulates thinking, introduces you to other people and their problems, and helps you see the similarities you might have with them,” she explains.

A labour of love

But besides the aforementioned, there is also reason to view this festival as a labour of love.

“I’ve always loved to share films with friends and colleagues. I remember how, when I was a film student in Madrid back in 2003, I collected a huge array of DVDs and brought them back to Egypt, where I shared them with many friends,” Ramsis recalls.

This passion for sharing with others also characterises Ramsis’ vocation as a filmmaker.

“I think it all boils down to why you are making and/or watching films. For me, its usually about a topic that has excited me and which I cannot wait to share with others, whether through making a film or during the festival."

This is true, Ramsis explains, of her upcoming project You Come From Faraway, a documentary recounting the life of Najati Sidki, a Palestinian journalist and former secretary of the Palestine Communist Party. Sidki had volunteered in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and fought alongside the Republicans against General Francisco Franco and his fascist forces.

Ramsis says she was especially inspired by the story of Sidki’s older daughter, Dawlat, who was born three years before the beginning of the war, and lost touch with her family during the course of her father's participation in this war. For the next 25 years, the daughter lived in Moscow before all Sidki family members reunited in Beirut decades later.

"I want the audience to see Dawlat through my eyes. I love to make films that explore a human side of an issue, and I am only capable of doing that through cinema,” Ramsis explains.

“As I’m speaking to you now, I can spot a pigeon coop at the roof of a nearby building through my own balcony. One usually comes across this scene as they walk down a street but not usually as they sit in their apartment."

“Why don’t you proceed to the spot where I'm standing, and experience this scene through my own eyes? This, in a nutshell, is what cinema means to me,” she adds.

On growth and training

In 2013, Cairo's Women Festival grew into an international event, showing film selections from all over the world. That year, the festival underwent a major expansion: from 13 to 45 films, and from one to three screening halls.

The growth in scope was accompanied by growth in the festival's team, increasing from a one-woman-show carried solely by Ramsis the first five years to a larger group of inspiring women who work incessantly to bring the festival to the light year after year.

For Ramsis, “the festival is a collective project” where a beautiful “sense of ownership” prevails among team members, and a lovely network of supporters.

Despite its growth, the festival continues to operate under a tight budget in comparison to other film festivals in Egypt, all the while maintaining free admission to all screenings. 

“Screenings must be for free especially in a country like Egypt where not everyone can afford movie tickets. As such, full accessibility to our films is a must," Ramsis asserts.

Another way the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival encourages women to pursue filmmaking is through providing film training. Every year, Ramsis organises film workshops, which target women with no previous experience in and knowledge of filmmaking.

The annual workshop takes place a couple of months before each festival edition, and targets about 15-20 women through an open call. It is held in cities across Egypt but also abroad as part of the festival’s caravan section.

During the four-day workshop, Ramsis explains, “participants are introduced to the basics of photography, filmmaking and film critique, and learn how to express their ideas through one-minute long films, which they execute in a collective manner. They discuss the status of women, and how to communicate vital women issues through different film projects."

The workshop, Ramsis adds, can also help participants discover whether they have a potential career in filmmaking.

This year’s workshops were held between December 2015 and January 2016 in Cairo, Alexandria, Assuit, and Minya.

The films produced during the workshop will be screened during the upcoming 9th edition in the presence of the workshop participants themselves.

9th edition: 60 films, 40 countries, and much joy to Cairo's cinephiles

This year’s edition of the festival will run between 27 February and 3 March. The festival will screen 60 films from 40 different countries, including works selected from other international festivals, as well as submissions made through an open-call.

Three venues, Falaki Theatre, Artistic Creativity Centre and Goethe Institute, will host the screenings.

The opening film will be Still the Water, a Japanese/French production by director Naomi Kawase, and will show at the Falaki Theatre.

Other important films which will be screened in the 9th edition include: Frailer (The Netherlands, 2014), Nena (The Netherlands & Germany, 2014), The Future is Ours (Argentina, 2014), Seeing the Unseen (Argentina, 2014), Suspended Time (Mexico, 2015), and Speed Sisters (Palestine & USA, 2016).

This year, the festival will pay tribute to Egyptian-Lebanese documentary filmmaker Nabeeha Lofty, who passed away in June 2015, by showing one of her early chef d’oeuvres Li’ann al-guzur lan tamut (Because Roots Do Not Die-1977). In the film, the late Lotfy narrated the the 1976 Syrian Tel Al-Zaatar massacre of Palestinians in Beirut. The film will be making its Egypt debut at the festival.

Moreover, around 15 filmmakers, whose films will be screened in the festival, will also be present to discuss their films in Q&A sessions following the film screenings.  

For example, the festival will honour famed Finnish director, cinematographer and screenwriter Pirjo Honkasalo by screening six of her films, including Concrete Night, Fire Eater, The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, and Flame Top.

Honkasalo will be present at the festival where she will hold a master class about her film vocation.                                                                                  

Moreover, the festival chose Denmark to be this year’s Country in Focus, and will celebrate the ‘Dogme 95’ film movement, which appeared in Denmark in the 1990s with the objective of making low-budget cinema.

As Ramsis explains, “this movement employed a very specific cinematic language and bore very important directors.”

The festival will thus screen a total of 10 films, which were underpinned by the Dogme’s principles. Also, Annette K.Olesen, the director of In Your Hands (2004), a dogme film, will be present at the festival and will hold a master-class where “she will discuss the movement, how and why it disappeared, the importance of such film movements, and some of the production challenges they face.”

The festival will also screen four other Danish films, and three documentary films made by the National Film School of Denmark—which, as Ramsis puts it, “has a very unique experience in documentary filmmaking.” A discussion about the school’s teaching philosophy will follow one of the film screenings.

Every year, the festival invites one of the women’s film festivals presented worldwide to choose a selection from its films and screen them as part of the festival in Cairo. This year’s guest festival is the Dortmund/Cologne International Women’s Film Festival, which will be screening two films from the festival’s past edition.  

Two special sections also adorn the 9th edition; the ‘Dance and Cinema’ section that will screen four films exploring this theme, and the ‘Spanish Short Films’ section that comprises six shorts.

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