Algerian filmmaker Yasmine Chouikh’s Until the End of Time, which premiered at the Dubai Film Festival last year, opened the 11th round of the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival (3-9 March).
The event started 10 years ago as the Caravan of Arab and Iberoamerican Women’s Films (2007-2013), before becoming an international festival.
This year 54 films from 34 countries will be screened, with two extra screening venues at Zawya (in addition to screens at the Falaki Theatre, the Artistic Creativity Centre and the Goethe Institute) to accommodate a growing audience.
According to Amal Ramsis, the festival’s founding director, it will now be possible to screen each film twice, which proved difficult in previous years: “We wanted to have more films and to give the audience the opportunity to manage their schedules in a more flexible way.”
Reaching a wider audience is the ultimate aim, with all screenings taking place for free and featuring Arabic subtitles.
“It is not a matter of budget but of priorities,” Ramsis says.
“We don’t have an opening ceremony or any other kind of party and every penny goes to the essential needs of the festival which is producing Arabic subtitles,” the task of an in-house crew of eight professional translators who start working a few months before the opening, “and inviting filmmakers to attend. Our budget comes mainly from the contributions of the foreign cultural centres and the embassies of the selected films’ countries. We do not have stable funders," she adds.
"After the film selection phase we start the journey of approaching the funders who are in charge of inviting guests, paying the films’ fees and the other expenses. It is not a well-off festival but we do our best to serve our vision.” In other words, to show the world as women see it.
“It is not about women but by women. The films are not necessarily about women’s issues but about how women deal cinematically with everyday issues. It’s somehow assumed that male directors can talk about everything but female directors should only talk about women and this festival aims to change this idea. When we started in 2007 it was the only festival of its kind in the region. Now we are proud that the concept is established and has spread.”
For the first time in 11 years the Country in Focus section is on an Arab country, Lebanon, with six films by Lebanese female filmmakers who will also hold a round table discussion: Mary Jirmanus Saba’s A Feeling Greater Than Love, which won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, Mounia Akl’s Submarine, which won the Muhr Jury Prize at the Dubai Film Festival and the Liberty Global Award for Best Film from the Denver Film Festival, Stephanie Koussa’s A Story of Emigration, Reine Mitri’s Lost Paradise, Eliane Raheb’s Those Who Remain, which won the Jury award for a feature film at the Ismailia Film Festival, and Yara Borrello’s Lego House, which won the Best Short Documentary prize at the London Independent Film Festival.
According to Ramsis, “around 70 per cent of Lebanese films made recently are by female directors. We can see progress in terms of quality, narration and the issues being dealt with.”
Twenty films are being screened in the Panorama section, including the Japanese film Radiance (screened at Cannes), the German films Greetings from Fukushima and Untitled screened at Berlin, and the Brazilian film Nalu on the Border, which won VFF Talent Highlight Award there.
The Arab-Iberamerican section, the oldest — whose films will be screened in a number of Arab and Latin cities after the festival — includes the Spanish film Summer 1993 by Carla Simon, which won the Best First Feature Film Award at both Berlin and the Malaga Film Festival, The Desert Bride by Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato, which was screened at Cannes.
The Arab films in this section are Behind the Wall by the Moroccan director Karima Zoubir, and Girls of a Feather by the Egyptian director Dina Abdel-Salam. Claire Belhassine’s The Man Behind the Microphone is a British documentary about the great Tunisian singer Hédi Jouini (1909-1990), whose songs continue to inspire revolutionaries and conservatives alike, striking at the heart of the post-colonial social and political upheaval of Tunisia and its continuing search for identity in the wake of the Arab Spring.
The film had its world premiere at IDFA, the UK-based film festival and its Middle East premiere at Dubai.
This year one of the special sections is dedicated to animation with seven international films in addition to the Egyptian short film The Found Soul by Passente Tamam.
But Ramsis says the theme of this section changes from one year to the next, because of the way it is arrived at: “After the selection we come to an understanding of a dominant feature that brings many films together and that is how we choose the theme. This year it was animation, last year it was music and dance.”
In Cinema School, on the other hand, a film institute is invited to screen some of their female students’ films, with the added aim of encouraging networking here in Egypt. This year the guest institute is the French La Femis films. “This is one of the most important film schools in Europe,” Ramsis explains. “We will screen five student films and the institute representatives will visit different film schools in Cairo.”
Two workshops will take place parallel to the festival. One is the annual One Minute workshop which is a video workshop to introduce non-professional women to the basics of cinematography and making short films, aiming at creating a dialogue between women from around the world through video correspondence. The other is The Rough Cut for Arab Women Filmmakers, which is taking place for the first time.
Out of six filmmakers working on the rough cut of their film, two are chosen to receive €4,000 and €1,000 towards postproduction. The jury members are the Tunisian lecturer-researcher and festival curator Azza Chaabounithe, the Egyptian director, producer and founder of Hassala Films Hala Lotfi, the founder of Sonntag Pictures Sara Stockmann, the Lebanese journalist and film critic Hoda Ibrahim and the filmmaker and professor of film at the American University in Cairo Arab Lotfi.
Cairo International Women’s Film Festival does not have a competition as such, but the audience votes for the best film which is then given a third screening at the closing ceremony. Ramsis says the audience is the best judge, not any jury of experts: “This festival is for the audience and we do everything we can to strengthen the connection with the audience and the culture of movie-watching.”
The festival, Ramsis goes on, prioritises quality. “Quality is the main criterion of selection and also how far it chimes with the festival’s vision. When people know that they will watch different but quality films in their own language and for free this builds trust and credibility. Credibility is the best kind of advertising and the best motivation.”
For Ramsis the festival not only promotes female filmmakers to the local audience but also Arab female filmmakers to the world: “We have many Arab female filmmakers who are unknown in the world at large. Such a festival is an opportunity to promote them and their work. It is an image-changing measure, since their films represent them not as stereotypical victims but as strong artists exploring their everyday issues in a highly artistic way.”
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture